Exploring the music of Russia’s “Mighty Handful” would seem a useful limber up for the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and Sir Antonio Pappano ahead of the upcoming production of Boris Godunov in April. On day release from the Covent Garden pit for their annual evening in the limelight, the orchestra took a quick spin through works by the composers that Mily Balakirev gathered around himself to form a Russian school of music. Pappano didn’t always plump for obvious repertoire, but his band needs a little more dirt under their fingernails to pass off convincingly as Russians.

Sir Antonio Pappano and the ROH Orchestra © ROH | Clive Barda
Sir Antonio Pappano and the ROH Orchestra
© ROH | Clive Barda

Rimsky-Korsakov’s shimmering orchestral palette fared well. The batonless Pappano coaxed silken string lines in the Hymn to Nature that opens the opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. Sometimes dubbed ‘The Russian Parsifal’, Kitezh glows with pantheistic warmth, woodwinds chirruping in the forest murmurs. The second excerpt depicts the Battle of Kerzhenetz, finding the ROH brass on uncharacteristically secure form. Everyone knows The Flight of the Bumble-bee, although opportunities to see the opera from which it fleetingly appears – The Tale of Tsar Saltan – are few and far between in the UK. Woodwinds fluttered and string buzzed angrily.

A renowned chemist, Alexander Borodin wrote music in his spare time, his scores progressing fitfully. His Second Symphony took nearly seven years to compose; a grand, heroic work, echoing the mood of his great unfinished opera, Prince Igor. Indeed, it has sometimes earned the nickname “The Bogatyrs” after the warrior knights of Slavic legend. Pappano certainly summoned up the first movement’s heroic nature, hammering out the insistent motto theme with his baton, trombones ringing out splendidly. The Scherzo lacked urgency, but the noble horn theme in the Andante glowed tremulously. The whirling finale, so reminiscent of the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, glittered with excitement.

Sir Antonio Pappano © ROH | Clive Barda
Sir Antonio Pappano
© ROH | Clive Barda

The brief second half flew past. Mussorgsky was represented by his St John’s Night on Bare Mountain, familiar yet unfamiliar. The score is mostly heard in Rimsky’s varnished re-orchestration, glossing over his roommate’s earthier original. Tonight though, we heard those first thoughts and here the ROH Orchestra erred on the tentative side. This music depicts a witches’ sabbath but it was all a bit tame.  

At Wexford in October, I reviewed a real operatic rarity – Mascagni’s Guglielmo Ratcliff. Even rarer is César Cui’s version of Heinrich Heine’s gothic drama, from which we heard the sumptuous Act III Prelude, featuring aching strings. It is almost certainly the only music of Cui’s ever played in this House, as indeed was the case with Balakirev, whose Islamey closed the programme. This Oriental Fantasy was composed as a finger-breaking piano display piece to rival anything by Liszt. It makes the occasional concert foray in Lyapunov’s orchestration. However Pappano, being of Italian extraction, couldn’t resist the gaudy colours of Alfredo Casella’s version. If only his orchestra had let its hair down accordingly, trumpet blips and mistimed percussion entries leaving an impression of untidiness.

Ultimately, these performances betrayed that the orchestra doesn’t yet have Russian music coursing through its veins. A shot of vodka or two may be necessary to acquire the rugged character needed for Boris Godunov. Za vashe zdorovye!