A tremendous celebration of the 150th anniversary of Rachmaninov’s birth in Yekaterinburg

Russian FederationRussian Federation Rachmaninov. Visible Music Festival: Soloists, Yekaterinburg Philharmonic Choir /Andrei Petrenko (conductor), Ural Youth Symphony Orchestra / Andrei Petrenko (conductor). Sverdlovsk Philharmonic Hall, from Virtual Concert Hall relay, 30.3.2023. (GT)

After the Aleko performance at the Rachmaninov. Visible Music Festival

RachmaninovThree Russian Songs, Op.41; Spring Cantata, Op.20; Aleko

Aleko cast:

Aleko – Alexey Frolov
Zemfira – Klavdia Bashkirtseva
Gypsy Woman – Elena Sidorenko
Young Gypsy – Boris Stepanov
The Old Man – Andrey Zemskov

According to the Sverdlovsk Philharmonic’s press release, ‘the music of Sergei Rachmaninov embodies incredible openness and aristocratic restraint, the nobility of the soul and its perfect beauty. In April 2023, the musical world will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, and the Sverdlovsk Philharmonic will celebrate this event with the Music Festival, entitled Rachmaninov. Visible Music. In an effort to show the scale of Rachmaninov’s personality, the Festival will combine music, fine arts, and modern visual technologies. Musical canvases will become “visible” thanks to the video projection of the works by Russian painters of the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries: Shishkin, Denisov-Uralsky, Savrasov, Nesterov and other artists represented in the collection of the Festival’s partner — the Yekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts.’

Notably, in this concert, the works are from different periods in the composer’s career; Aleko was his first major success and hints of the dark romanticism of his symphonic masterpieces, the Three Russian Songs is from when he was living in America, while the Spring Cantata is from the beginning of the twentieth century.

‘The Rachmaninov. Visible Music Festival is the only cultural event in Russia that focuses on the composer’s vocal, symphonic, and choral heritage. The Festival programme features almost all of Rachmaninov’s works written by him for choir and with the participation of the choir: the sacred music cycles, compositions a cappella and with accompaniment, cantatas and his first opera Aleko. The composer’s choral heritage will allow the listener to perceive Rachmaninov’s deep connection to Russian culture and appreciate his bright and innovative courage in expressing feelings and ideas. The Festival programme includes, among others: All-Night Vigil; The Liturgy of John Chrysostom; Aleko; Spring; Three Russian Songs; Bells; Symphonic Dances; romances and other vocal works. The appeal to Rachmaninov’s choral heritage in the year of his anniversary will contribute to the global music celebration of the richness of colours of Rachmaninov’s “Visible Music” universe.’

The Three Russian Songs from 1926 are from traditional Russian folk songs, the second of which ‘Ah ty, Vanka’ was composed after his friend Chaliapin sang the song to him. They were dedicated to Leopold Stokowski who gave the first performance in a programme that also included the premiere of the Fourth Concerto. Interestingly, the Three Russian Songs were more successful than the new concerto.

The opening Russian Song ‘Over the stream, the swift stream’ started on gorgeously lyrical violins led by the highly gifted Lyubov Varaksina, and the theme was picked up by the woodwind and the women’s soprano voices, and a cello theme created a lovely rising and falling idea. The second song, ‘Ah ty Vanka, you are dashing’ was colourful in its cheeky humour, and enhanced by fine solos from the cor anglais of Nikita Dementyev. A flute solo from Maria Kalupina was delightful, and Varaksina played a virtuosic solo heralding a solo oboe tune by Polina Orlova. The third song, ‘My cheeks, so white, so rosy!’ was upbeat and merry, with wonderfully harmonious singing from the mixed chorus.

Written by Rachmaninov following his composition of the Second Piano Concerto in 1902, the Spring Cantata is from Nekrasov’s eponymous poem about a husband who is obsessed with vengeance on his unfaithful wife and who is saved from committing a crime by the onset of Spring and the renewal of life.

Members of the Ural Youth Symphony Orchestra and Yekaterinburg Philharmonic Choir

Rachmaninov’s Spring Cantata opened on soft strings, again supported by the woodwind with rising melodies from the sopranos, passing across to the mezzos and to tenors and basses creating a magical movement of sound from left to right in a wonderful sound picture. The bass voice of Andrei Zemskov was bright, and splendidly rising in emotion, again we heard crescendos of sound and especially from the low strings with the darkly evocative harmonies typical of the composer’s symphonies. There was a fine solo from the bass clarinet of Boris Zhvakin before the music fell into a mesmerising silence.

Rachmaninov’s Aleko was a graduation piece at the Moscow Conservatoire in 1891 and led to his winning the Gold Medal and won the praise of Tchaikovsky. The one-act opera is based on Nemirovich-Danchenko’s libretto from Pushkin’s The Gypsies poem.

In this concert performance, Aleko opened with a colourful orchestral introduction, with an enticing idea by Kalupina on the flute that was picked up by strings and brass introducing a theme more typical of Tchaikovsky, full of angst and gloom. Yet, the magical entry of the ladies’ choir with their exotic harmonies was glorious. The Old Gypsy was characterised by Andrei Zemskov, with his typically deep Slavic bass in narrating his sorrows and lost love: ‘The magic power of song’. The Aleko of Alexei Frolov was perhaps the outstanding singer of all; he had a terrific dramatic presence and a baritone which was dark and cutting when needed.

The orchestral interlude with richly exotic harmonies hinted at Borodin and developed into a richly colourful gipsy dance. Another contender for the finest singing of the evening was the Zemfira of Klavdia Bashkirtseva, especially in pleading to her lover: ‘Go! My husband is jealous and cruel’, to the Young Gypsy of Boris Stepanov who begs: ‘Just one more kiss! One long kiss of farewell!’ in their marvellous duet of great singing and characterisation. However, it was Aleko who stole the thunder with his glorious cavatina full of suspicion and jealousy: ‘The whole camp sleeps’ followed by the characterful orchestral intermezzo.

The young Gypsy of Stepanov was fantastic in his romance, ‘Look how beneath the distant vault of heaven, the moon sails freely along’ from another duet between Zemfira and her beau, before the angry Aleko disposes of the luckless pair of lovers: ‘Stay! Where are you off to, my handsome fellow?’ If the singing was distinguished, one would not have guessed that murder was being committed by the facial expressions of Zemfira and the young Gypsy, who both took their seats after being stabbed. Zemfira’s father reappeared as if to settle accounts, and a wonderfully sung cameo from the Gypsy Woman of Elena Sidorenko closed this opera ‘Men! Go and dig fresh graves. Aleko contains some gorgeous tunes, and the singing was excellent throughout.

This was a superb celebration of Rachmaninov’s choral and operatic creativity magnificently realised by the forces of this outstanding Ural Youth Symphony Orchestra and Yekaterinburg Philharmonic Choir, graced by the voices of these fine opera singers. An innovative feature was the projection of Russian paintings above the performers giving a rather vivid addition to the evening’s music.

Gregor Tassie

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