Like events everywhere, the 2020 Perth Festival of the Arts was cancelled due to the pandemic, but for 2021 a decision was taken to hold a virtual festival with events filmed in advance and then streamed. Although mainly classically based, the whole range of events, including up-and-coming local performers as well as photography and art exhibitions, are all represented, with something for everyone. Being digital has made extras possible like a choral workshop with the Gesauldo Six and a zoom call with Harry Christophers of The Sixteen. Another innovation is a drive-in cinema at Scone Palace.

Ilona Domnich
© Perth Festival of the Arts

The story of Sergei Rachmaninov was illustrated in a delightfully charming evening of his songs with Russian soprano Ilona Domnich making a return to Perth Festival with pianist Sholto Kynoch. Broadcaster Michael White guided us through the composer’s turbulent life and times.    

Although most of the ten songs featured were written before Rachmaninov and his family fled the Russian revolution through Finland to Sweden, White cleverly matched the pieces to the composer’s often fragile state of mind. Domnich opened with Lilacs, a song of happiness on a dew-clad morning, her powerful soprano ideally suited to this romantic repertoire. I enjoyed her childlike wonder at the cherry tree blossom in Before my Window, sensitively accompanied by Kynoch who set the tone perfectly.

Idyllic countryside living did not last as Rachmaninov’s father lost estates through bad deals and gambling, but his grandmother spotted talent and the young Rachmaninov was sent to learn piano in a school that White called a Moscow musical borstal. He studied at the conservatoire and had his first hit Prelude in C#, illustrated by Kynoch.  His Symphony no.1 had a disastrous first performance which sent the composer into a dark place. Sorrow in Springtime, passionately sung by Domnich, reflected the times, but happiness was around the corner with marriage to his first cousin Natalya and a successful Piano Concerto no 2.  How Fair is the Spot was a song written as an engagement present, part of 12 Romances composed to pay for the honeymoon, Domnich’s mid-range register beautifully lyrical, her voice opening out at the climax.    

Sholto Kynoch and Ilona Domnich
© Perth Festival of the Arts

Although Rachmaninov settled in America and was so successful that, as White told us, he had his own railway carriage with upright piano when he toured, he felt in permanent exile, the final songs reflecting this.  Believe it or Not was a romantically lush piece touched with longing, but the more delicate Do Not Sing for Me Fair Maiden conveyed the dark mood best, Domnich’s softly solemn rich voice, hands clasped in front of her, truly living the song. White matched up Spring Waters, a song about the ice finally breaking and the promise of spring with Rachmaninov’s time on his American tours, a happy song with flowing piano and a big vocal finish. A period near Lake Lucerne and an appetite for speedboats and fast cars was reflected in his song The pied piper, given a characterful performance by Domnich.

World War II saw Rachmaninov back in America, his traditional style of music struggling next to emerging new exciting voices.  Falling ill on tour just short of his 70th birthday, he died soon after. His wordless Vocalise ended this fascinating and enlightening insight into another side of a composer we think we know through his big romantic works.

The presentation by Stagecast was excellent, although the acoustic of the studio theatre was limiting at the big moments. Perth Festival has a tiny staff and a core of able volunteers, so running events with no audience and then streaming has been a tight learning curve for all. Next year is the Festival’s 50th anniversary, so hopefully, audience and performers will be back together to celebrate in style.

This concert was reviewed from the Perth Festival video stream