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Reviews

10 Feb 2019

Rachvelishvili excels in ROH Orchestra's Russian programme

Cardboard buds flaming into magic orchids. The frenzied whizz of a Catherine Wheel as it pushes forth its fiery petals. A harvest sky threshed and glittering with golden grain.

Royal Opera House Orchestra Concert, ROH Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Anita Rachvelishvili (mezzo-soprano)

Photo courtesy of Zemsky/Green Artists Management

 

The lightning-quick aural pyrotechnics of Stravinsky’s 1917 Feu d’artifice which opened this Royal Opera House Orchestra Concert fizzingly embodied the visual imagery of Vernon Scannell’s poem, ‘The Gunpowder Plot’. Antonio Pappano, bursting with rocket-like energy, propelled the quietly whirring woodwind and twitching strings towards a kaleidoscopic explosion: horns and trumpets forming a vibrant display of canonic colour, staccato ascents surging from the orchestral depths to the sonic heavens, harps spraying arpeggio-fountains. There was brief respite - a pointillistic shower of string harmonics and flutters forming a scintillating star-scape - but this was the merest pause for breath, before the climactic sequence of crackers and crashes, surging and seemingly infinite. Pappano’s precision mastered both the luminosity of Stravinsky’s delicate will-o’-the-wisps and the flamboyance of the sparks and flames.

Feu d’artifice was a stirring ‘Russian Five-inspired’ warm-up to the sequence of Rachmaninov songs - as orchestrated by Vladimir Jurowski, grandfather of the current LPO principal conductor, and the late Hungarian pianist, conductor and composer, Zoltán Kocsis - which formed the heart of this programme of less familiar Russian repertoire. Rachmaninov composed 83 songs, or ‘románsy’ as they are called in Russian. They have been collected into opuses according to factors such as date and geography, but they do not form ‘cycles’. In lesser hands, the pick-and-mix selection that we had here might have struggled to form a lucid whole, especially if the audience insisted on clapping each song, as they initially did here. Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili and Pappano certainly illuminated the wonderful diversity and range of these songs - from the dark, nasally Slavonic tint of ‘Christ is risen’ in which Rachvelishvili projected a religiosity of almost operatic intensity, to the softer reflections of ‘She is as beautiful as midday’ in which her restrained, controlled line was a hypnotic thread. But, they also provide insight into the cohesive aesthetic of the songs. Rachmaninov saw them as belonging to a specifically Russian milieu; when he left Russia in 1917, to make his living as an international pianist, he wrote no more songs.

Rachvelishvili’s used the velvety glossiness of her mezzo to capture the burgeoning excitement of the lovers depicted in ‘Midsummer Nights’, the lyrical surges shining rhapsodically, while Pappano communicated the restlessness of this song in which rapture is tinged with anxiety. The naturalness of Rachvelishvili’s delivery in ‘Come, let us rest!’ was compelling, as she persuasively embodied the poetic persona who dreams of angels’ songs and visions of heaven, shining like a jewel. And, in the closing orchestral episode, as the clarinet echoed the fading vocal line, Pappano evoked this world of her imaginings, the music seeming to carry us ‘elsewhere’: “My addakhnjón …/ My addakhnjón …” (We will rest …). ‘When yesterday we met’ was intimate, and the string playing - by solo players at the opening, then luxuriously enriched - beautiful. What a pity that one particularly wheezy audience member, here and elsewhere, saved their most vigorous hacking for the closing cadence.

Rachvelishvili’s performance was rapturously received, and she generously offered more. Her first encore, ‘Here it is so fine’, painted an exquisite vision of the distant river, glittering like fire, and meadows, a carpet of colour, reaching the apex of dreamy loveliness in the soaring final line where the pianissimo high B was floated tenderly and with absolute vocal security. Rachmaninov was not averse to transcriptions and orchestrations of his songs, and made several of the latter himself, including of his most famous song, ‘Vocalise’. I do not know if it was the composer’s own orchestration that we heard here, but we enjoyed a glorious vocal rhapsody, spun with absolute control, as Rachvelishvili sustained the nuance and interest, never letting the tension of the phrases slacken but not pushing the line too hard.

Pappano chose to conclude his Russian programme with Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite No.3, offering us a welcome opportunity to hear a work which, like the composer’s other three suites, which were all composed in the period between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, is seldom programmed in the concert hall. Freed from the ‘rules’ of symphonic form, Tchaikovsky’s imagination seems to have flourished, if the wealth of lyricism and colour is anything to judge by. It’s not surprising that the Third Suite was well-received when premiered in St Petersburg in January 1885, conducted by Hans von Bülow, an occasion which led Tchaikovsky to write to Madame von Meck: “I have never seen such a triumph. I saw the whole audience was moved, and grateful to me. These moments are the finest adornments of an artist’s life. Thanks to these it is worth living and labouring.”

One imagines that the composer would have been similarly pleased and proud to hear this vivid, dynamic performance by the ROH Orchestra. Each time Pappano dipped his baton into Tchaikovsky’s many-coloured paint-pot, he found a new hue or timbre, and he drew finely textured images of detail and clarity, aided by some superb playing from his musicians. The flowing Élégie throbbed with a perfect balance of pain and passion, the ache enhanced by a series of beautiful woodwind solos by clarinet, oboe and, at the close, cor anglais. After an expansive Valse mélancolique which was sometimes wracked with anxious cares, the Scherzo was a whirlwind of pianissimo virtuosity, so fast, precise and delicate that one almost held one’s breath, as if watching a Formula 1 driver negotiate the twists and turns with pinpoint exactitude. The ROH Orchestra stayed securely on track, punctuating the close with a tutti fortissimo full-stop. ‘Beat that!’ they seemed to say, as concert leader smiled at his maestro. No wonder the audience couldn’t resist showing their appreciation.

Tchaikovsky himself started the tradition of performing the final movement as a separate concert piece, and the Theme and Variations - which were choreographed by George Balanchine - is more familiar than the preceding movements. Pappano brilliantly defined the diverse moods and rhythmic character of the unfolding variations. Concert Master Sergey Levitin relished the virtuosity of the cadenza which links the nine and tenth variations, and the solo violin melody in the latter was warm of tone and playful in spirit. The concluding Polacca was grand and imperial.

The ROH musicians and their conductor had clearly enjoyed themselves, as had the audience who vigorously showed their deep appreciation, and their affection for Pappano. Despite being recalled to the stage numerous times, he declined to give them the encore they desired, gesturing with a wry smile that it was ‘time for bed’. One imagines that the executive management must hope that at the end of the 2022-23 season, when Pappano’s current contract will end, that they can prove more persuasive.

Claire Seymour

Anita Rachvelishvili (mezzo-soprano), Antonio Pappano (conductor), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Stravinsky - Feu d’artifice; Rachmaninov - ‘Christ is risen’ Op.26 No.6, ‘All things depart’ Op.26 No.15, ‘So dread a fate I’ll ne’er believe’ Op.34 No.7, ‘As fair as day in blaze of noon’ Op.14 No.9, ‘Midsummer nights’ Op.14 No.5, ‘When yesterday we met’ Op.26 No.13, ‘Come, let us rest!’ Op.26 No.3, ‘How fair this spot Op.21 No.7; Tchaikovsky - Orchestral Suite No.3 in G major Op.55

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Friday 8th February 2019.

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