Compared with many of its Continental cousins, for whom concert-giving can often form a significant part of the theatre season, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House doesn’t get let out of its pit very often. But when it does, the rewards can be significant. It’s just a shame that for this all-Russian programme under music director Antonio Pappano the platform wasn’t extended into the auditorium over the pit, which remained like a darkened tank-trap between musicians and audience, with the players instead seated behind the proscenium and beneath a wooden acoustic shell that bore an uncanny resemblance to the current Katya Kabanova set.

Sir Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden © ROH | Clive Barda (2015)
Sir Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
© ROH | Clive Barda (2015)

The concert-opener was one of those pieces that seems to be over almost as soon as it has begun: Stravinsky’s Fireworks, the orchestral showpiece that reputedly caught Diaghilev’s attention and changed the course of musical history. Not bad for a four-minute flourish, which sounded exuberant if a little raw in this performance, as if the orchestra was still getting used to its pre-eminent position on stage.

The rest of the concert’s first half was given over to a sequence of Rachmaninov’s romants (romances) for which the orchestra was joined by Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, an esteemed Carmen and Azucena for the house in previous seasons. Presenting these songs in an orchestral guise – with instrumentation by Vladimir Jurowski (grandfather of the LPO’s current principal conductor) and the pianist Zoltán Kocsis – inevitably scales them up from their piano originals, and Rachvelishvili’s performances had an operatic level of expression, notable from the start with the full, rich tone she brought to the song Christ is risen. But there was plenty of subtlety, too, with a lovely floated piano in She is as beautiful as the noon matched by silken playing from the orchestra’s woodwind, and delicacy in When yesterday we met, while in Summer nights her supple chest voice was set against airy orchestration to good effect. She and the orchestra gave us two encores, the inevitable Vocalise, full of delicate changes of vocal colour as the melody and temperature waxed and waned, and a nicely shaped How fair this spot, which had been billed as the last of the advertised sequence before plans were changed to accommodate perhaps the highlight of the segment, her dreamy, poignant account of Sing not to me, beautiful maiden, those sad songs of Georgia.

Anita Rachvelishvili © Dario Acosta
Anita Rachvelishvili
© Dario Acosta

The second half of the programme was given over to Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 in G major. In the words that Pappano had spoken to the audience after the Stravinsky opener, there had been a hint of a subtext pleading that those who might be there just for Rachvelishvili should stay after the interval for a treat they might not have expected. And it is inexplicable why this glorious work, revealing the composer at his most inspired, doesn’t appear as often in concert programmes as his other, better-known orchestral works. The Third Suite combines the scale of one of his symphonies with the character pieces of his ballets yet doesn’t lack emotional depth, as the opening Élégie exemplifies, played here with a gorgeous richness of tone from the strings. The Valse mélancolique had a real sense of pulse and the Scherzo was mercurial, with an acute sharpness of wit in its central ‘toy’ march. The final Tema con variazioni offers even more variety of expression, and Pappano made each variation speak, culminating in a hell-for-leather Polka that had both power and momentum.