Rachmaninov By Candlelight. An Enthralling Experience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Rachmaninov:  Steven Osborne (piano), Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore (conductor). Symphony Hall,Birmingham. 2 10. 2011 (JQ)

Vespers (All Night Vigil) Op. 37
Piano Preludes, Op. 23.  No 3 in D minor
No 4 in D major
No 6 in E flat major
No 7 in C minor
No 10 in G flat major
Piano Preludes, Op. 32   No 1 in C major
No 5 in G major
No 7 in F major
No 9 in A major

I approached this concert with a mixture of keen anticipation and no little intrigue. I expected music making of a very high standard, of course: Ex Cathedra is a fine choir, whose performances under Jeffrey Skidmore I’ve always found rewarding, while Steven Osborne is a superb pianist; the opportunity to hear him play Rachmaninov was not to be missed – I greatly admire his recording of the complete Preludes (review). So much for the anticipation. The intrigue was occasioned by Jeffrey Skidmore’s plan to programme a selection of the Piano Preludes together with the ‘Vespers’. How would this work in practice? Would the choral music detract from the piano pieces – or vice versa? It was not long before any such concerns were well and truly laid to rest.

Until I saw the programme book I had no idea exactly how the music would be presented. In the event, many of the movements of the ‘Vespers’ were followed by a prelude. I’ve listed the nine preludes in numerical order at the top of this review but they weren’t played in that order: the ordering was more subtle than that. In his preface to the programme Jeffrey Skidmore explained that the choice of preludes and the order in which they appeared in the concert was driven partly by practical considerations: a prelude could, by prefacing a choral movement, establish a change of key between two choral movements. Additionally, preludes were selected “to maintain or establish moods.” I’m not entirely sure that this latter consideration worked at all times but there was no occasion when the choice of a particular prelude jarred in any way with the choral music that immediately preceded or followed it. And in several instances the sequence worked in a revelatory way – for example the pensive writing in Op 23 No 10, which we heard in a masterly performance by Osborne, caught to perfection and sustained the mood of the preceding fourth movement from the ‘Vespers’.  In a few instances choral movements were sung without a piano interpolation (movements 6–8, movements 9–10 and movements 13-14). On these occasions the continuity was driven either by liturgical considerations – in a liturgical context the pieces would be sung consecutively – or for the practical consideration that there was no need to establish a new key by means of a prelude.

We’re all so used to hearing the ‘Vespers’ sung as an uninterrupted sequence that it’s easy to forget that were the music to be sung in a liturgical context there would be gaps, often quite extended ones, between the movements. So, once one had forgotten the force of habit, as it were, there was absolutely no reason why the choral movements should not be broken up in this way. And Skidmore’s novel approach had the benefit that the music could be heard as an uninterrupted sequence – apart from a midway interval – without the distraction of the choir receiving a fresh chord.

But the key question is this: did the idea work in practice? The answer must be unequivocally in the affirmative. And whatever other musical rewards there were to be gained from the presentation I think a key benefit was that the piano and choral music complemented each other in demonstrating – in a refreshing new way – the extent to which Rachmaninov’s music is permeated by Russian ‘soul.’ For surely there could be no greater evidence that Rachmaninov was steeped in the culture of Imperial Russia than to hear the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church and its liturgy on the composer’s music and then relate that across to the often soulful melancholy of his piano music.

For the concert the hall lighting was dimmed significantly and on the stage were placed six large candelabras on stands – this low lighting made it very difficult, if not impossible, to follow the words but the gain in atmosphere more than compensated.

Steven Osborne’s playing was as excellent as I’d expected. The chosen preludes were all very different in character and style and he interpreted each superbly. Thus, for example, the gently rippling, watery figurations of Op. 32, No 5 were beautifully delineated, the touch delightful and the bass line richly yet subtly delivered. By contrast, the dynamism and strong rhythms of Op, 32 No 7 were not only arresting to hear on their own account but also provided a fine contrast with the slow, quiet and flowing choral music heard immediately before (‘Vespers’, movement 2). Later in the programme I loved the wistful reflection of Osborne’s playing in Op. 23 No 4. This is a soulful reverie, albeit with some deeply felt climaxes. It’s echt-Rachmaninov and Osborne caught its mood to perfection. Indeed, there wasn’t a single piece among the nine that I found anything other than wholly convincing. And as well as his effortless virtuosity I admired his powers of concentration. It can’t be easy to sit and listen to a stretch of choral singing yet maintain one’s concentration at such a level as to be able to take over seamlessly with only the slightest of pauses after the singers are done.

And Mr Osborne can’t have been indifferent to the singing of Ex Cathedra for it was magnificent The programme listed forty-nine singers (17/14/9/9). The only slight reservation I had was that it would have been nice if the choir had included two or three more basses. In quiet passages the choir was perfectly balanced but at the climaxes I would have welcomed just a bit more solid bass foundation – but the famous bottom B flat at the end of the fifth movement was negotiated securely. In general, however, the choir excelled. I thought the control of dynamics and the range of dynamic contrast was most impressive – there was genuine fervour to some of the climaxes while the quiet singing was very well done. At all times and at all levels of volume the singing was incisive while tuning and ensemble were consistently excellent. And even for a choir as versatile and experienced as this the challenge of singing in Russian is not to be underestimated yet it seemed to me that the challenge was met head on and successfully.

The two soloists – both from within the choir – did a fine job. Mezzo Martha McLorinan was first rate in the second movement (‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’). I appreciated her firm, rich tone as well as the communicative way in which she sang. Tenor Jeremy Budd’s main contribution came in the fifth movement (‘Lord, now lettest Thou They servant depart’). His plangent, expressive voice was well suited to the music. He sustained the long lines very well and was in command of the demanding tessitura.

Not for the first time – and surely not for the last – Jeffrey Skidmore had devised an imaginative and illuminating programme and he conducted the choir superbly, drawing from them singing that was, according to the demands of the music, exquisitely poised or powerfully sonorous and which always rang with conviction.

Experiencing Rachmaninov by candlelight in this way made for a memorable concert. It was one which, for me – and with apologies for the pun – shed new light on Rachmaninov’s music in two different genres.

John Quinn