Soulful, expressive and fervently patriotic might arguably sum up any nation’s beating heart but here, in the dark colouring of Borodin, the opulence of Rachmaninov and the passion of Prokofiev, a strong Russian spirit emerged from these fine performances. Despite the impressive setting, however, Winchester Cathedral’s over-generous acoustic robbed some of the immediacy and brightness of choral and orchestral tone.

Natalya Romaniw © Patrick Allen, Opera Omnia
Natalya Romaniw
© Patrick Allen, Opera Omnia

The evening began with Borodin’s tone poem In the Steppes of Central Asia. Its depictions of an oriental caravan crossing the central Asian plains were given a neat and tidy account by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Richard Cooke. Solo woodwind and horn charmed the ear but a broader tempo might have better evoked the immense vistas travelled by camels and Russian soldiers. Strangely affecting too was the unintentional addition of two obligati robins that had taken up residence in the cathedral nave, bringing echoes of the nightingale written into Respighi’s Pines of Rome.

Rachmaninov’s choral symphony The Bells was given in a performance notable for its fervour. Well-judged tempi enabled plenty of momentum in the opening “Sleigh Bells” movement where tenor Robin Bailey offered shapely, if not always well-projected, phrases. In “Wedding Bells” Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw brought tenderness to her role, and only in moments of high-altitude passion did her intonation raise eyebrows. Underpinning her was the excellent Royal Philharmonic strings, carving out velvet-toned support. It was, however, Benedict Nelson’s resonant baritone that managed to sing over the orchestra with complete authority and fully engaged our attention. Here, celesta glinted and a consoling cor anglais made its own persuasive contribution. The Royal Choral Society excelled in the demanding choral writing of “Alarm Bells”, responding with real commitment to their “tale of horror” and their wild pleas for mercy ringing out convincingly. Under Cooke’s animated direction Rachmaninov’s birth to death work was as compelling as I’ve heard it. If only the Cathedral could have had a more accommodating acoustic.

To complete the evening was Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky - a seven-movement cantata for mezzo-soprano, choir and orchestra based on the composer’s score for Eisenstein’s 1938 film of the same name. It celebrates the 13th-century Russian prince Alexander’s decisive victory over an invading force of Teutonic Knights, for which Prokofiev furnishes grand choruses and strikingly imaginative orchestral writing. To this cinematic score the combined forces responded with confidence and absolute conviction. Although often undermined by orchestral weight, the chorus conveyed a fierce loyalty to Nevsky, whether in proud and determined resistance to the Teuton forces or in patriotic chant. Diction may not always have been clear, but a warmth of tone was readily discernible – especially in lightly-scored passages. The “Battle on the Ice” was sinister and thrilling, Cooke carefully building its drama into a wonderfully compelling scene. Most impressive was the moving elegy to the dead on the field of battle sung – from memory, by the young Ukrainian contralto Anna Starushkevych. Her beauty of tone and poise brought a special atmosphere here and spotlit Prokofiev’s gift for simple, unadorned melody and how to give it heartfelt expression. In this respect, Starushkevych crowned the evening.