Monday 6 November 2023

Escape to the Country: Rachmaninov at Ivanovka

Sergei Rachmaninov at Ivanovka, proofing his third piano concerto.
Sergei Rachmaninov at Ivanovka, proofing his third piano concerto in 1910
Escape to the Country: Rachmaninov at Ivanovka; Alexandra Dunaeva, Iestyn Morris, Nigel Foster, David Mildon; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church
Reviewed 3 November 2023

Rachmaninov in full focus, twenty of his marvellous songs from 1890 through to 1916 alongside readings from his letters

Rachmaninov wrote over 90 songs, the earliest dating from 1890 when he was still studying at the Moscow Conservatory through to 1916. When he left Russia in 1918, his compositional output dropped considerably and he stopped composing songs, his concept of the genre being so linked to the Russian language and the Russia that had passed. After 1918, he composed piano pieces, related to his career in the West as a soloist, the fourth piano concerto and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Symphony No. 3 and Symphonic Dances, and Three Russian Songs for chorus and orchestra, just 17 works written from 1918 to 1941.

But 1890 also marked another important event in Rachmaninov's life, it was the year he first started spending his Summers at Ivanovka, the estate belonging to his Aunt, Varvara Satina and her husband Alexander. Rachmaninov would marry the Satina's daughter, Natasha in 1902, and from 1890 to 1917, every Summer was spent at the estate and when it came into his possession he spent much of his income on it. Ivanovka was an important factor in Rachmaninov's life, it was where he had the right conditions to compose. But when he visited in 1917, the estate was in some chaos and the danger from the Social Revolutionary Party caused Rachmaninov distress. That, after 1918, he never returned to Russia is partly attributable to the fact that Ivanovka loomed so large in importance in Rachmaninov's life and without it, Russia was not the same.

For their programme celebration the the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth, Escape to the Country: Rachmaninov at Ivanovka, Nigel Foster and London Song Festival were joined at Hinde Street Methodist Church on Saturday 3 November 2023 by soprano Alexandra Dunaeva, countertenor Iestyn Morris and actor David Mildon for a programme of 20 Rachmaninov songs interleaved with readings from his letters.

The programme included songs from all of Rachmaninov's song sets, Opus 4 (1890-1893), Opus 8 (1893), Opus 14 (1896), Opus 21 (1902), Opus 26 (1906), Opus 34 (1912) and Opus 38 (1916). Some have particular significance relating to events in Rachmaninov's life, the Twelve Romances Op. 21 were written at Ivanovka just before his wedding, and many others were written at the estate. His Fourteen Romances Op 34 were settings of poems that were recommended to him by 'Re'. From 1912 he developed a relationship, epistolary at first but later in person, with Marietta Shaginian (1888-1982) whom Rachmaninov named 'Re' and who sent him poems that she suggested he set. And of course his Opus 38 songs, are his final compositions in the genre.

But rather than placing the songs in historical order, Foster chose to structure the programme around the narrative of Rachmaninov's life from the moment he left home, aged 12, to study in Moscow through to the moment he and his family left Russia for ever, with his marriage as the mid-way point of the interval. Around these, the songs were placed thematically, sometimes the older Rachmaninov setting a text that chimed with events earlier in his life, or vice versa.

When it came to setting texts, Rachmaninov had quite specific views. David Mildon read from one of Rachmaninov's letters to 'Re' where he specified what he was looking for in a poem, and in a way he had quite a narrow range. The songs are rarely long and quite a few set just one short verse. Whilst Rachmaninov's symphonic imagination created works of a substantial scale, his songs are shorter but no less dramatic. He seems to have favoured brief yet intense, a fevered outpouring that puts its all into a few phrases. There is rarely any idea of development and few have a narrative, they encapsulate a moment, dramatic, intense and vividly rapturous. His collections are just that, collections of song, song sets for want of a better word, they never tell a story. Narrative is entirely missing.

Soprano Anna Dunaeva and countertenor Iestyn Morris provided a wonderfully contrasting pair of soloists, each engaging with Rachmaninov in different ways. Dunaeva has a silvery, plangent voice which she used magically to bring out the underlying sense of melancholy in many of the songs, even the ones on an apparently happy subject. A feeling of rapture is rarely far away in the music, and Dunaeva's approach was intense and thoughtful. Iestyn Morris is a rare example of a countertenor wholeheartedly embracing the performing style of late 19th and early 20th century music. Morris has a richly vibrant voice, a full round sound that is a world away from the pure white Early Music voice. Perhaps there was just a bit too much pressure or effort in the very top and there were moments when you felt that he would have been more comfortable in a bigger venue. But his embracing of the passionate rapture in Rachmaninov's songs was wholehearted and often he sang the shorter songs, creating a big dramatic statement.

Of course, Rachmaninov was a fine pianist and the role of the piano in the songs is very far from mere accompaniment. Nigel Foster brought richness of tone to his playing as well as deftly dealing with sometimes fistfuls of notes, but it was in the long postludes that he really came into his own, the piano commenting in a Schumannesque manner on what has gone before.

I will be quite frank, the idea of a whole evening of Rachmaninov's songs is something I would keep for special occasions, but this showing of 20 of them brought out the strength of the music, that there is hardly a weak song.

David Milden was completely fascinating in his espousal of Rachmaninov's voice as we heard the composer effectively narrating his life from the age of 12 to the moment when he left Russia. It provided a lovely commentary on the music, sometimes referencing it directly, but it also gave us a real sense of Rachmaninov the man.

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