From Soprano Svetla Vasseliva’s vampish allure to Gianandrea Noseda’s warrior-like conducting, Prom 22 was a quintessentially Romantic affair with Russia at its heart. This Proms Choral Sunday, devoted to the music of Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov, brought impassioned performances from the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (with Noseda at the helm), the Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre and a hat-trick of Proms debutant soloists. Vocally speaking, precision was sometimes sacrificed to the gods of exuberance, but the rewards were frequently thrilling.

© BBC/Rammella and Giannese
© BBC/Rammella and Giannese

The curiosity of the evening was the two Dances from Rachmaninov’s one-act opera Aleko; written when he was still a student, the opera was deemed worthy of a Gold Medal in Composition. The Women’s and Men’s Dances showed us the raw Rachmaninov; lyrical yes, but not yet mature, or sure in his own voice as a composer. Aleko’s story of gypsy love and betrayal gives scope for some spirited interpretation, especially in the full-blooded scoring for strings. Fortunately, Noseda captured its feral youth, literally grunting at the cello and bass sections, who responded with exciting, aggressive bowing.

The opening work, the brooding cantata Spring, has a more sophisticated character. Its restlessness and lively use of percussion reflect its composer’s mindset at the time: hungry to write music once more after a three year drought of writer’s block and depression. That hunger for music life was expressed in some lively articulation, using rapid crescendos to create wonderful dynamic swells and retreats.

The distinctly operatic singing style of the Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre took longer to get used to. Their full, fruity tone was utterly theatrical – quite different from, for example, English oratorios or motets. Pitch in the Sopranos’ upper registers was a grey area, but otherwise the chorus equipped themselves admirably against the BBC Philharmonic, who remain world-class. Alexei Tanovitski showed the most finesse of tonight’s soloists, his silky Bass voice finely controlled and his performance enjoyably expressive.

Three Russian Songs were not quite as satisfying; the Chorus’ diction all but disappeared in the first. But Noseda showed deep understanding of Rachmaninov’s distinctly Russian idiom, coaxing some warm, brooding colours in the orchestral tapestry of folk themes.

We returned from the interval to a little bit of magic. One could say that Rachmaninov had a very personal fascination with the female voice - he had an affair with one young Soprano and mentored another outstanding operatic protégée. The sense of soulful, tragic romance in the unforgettable melody of Vocalise – as if the composer was meditating on a muse – was stylishly conveyed by Vasseliva. She seemed at one with the winding and whistful song without words, perhaps forgetting herself a little too much at times as she tripped up at a couple of technically challenging arpeggiaic phrases. But tonight’s audience would have forgiven Vasseliva anything; her voice is unusually sweet, clear and powerful. Indeed, when we came to the final piece, The Bells, that voice, striking stage presence and habit of swaying along during orchestral passages earned her a round of applause after the second of the four poems.

Indeed, The Bells was a triumph for the BBC Philharmonic, Tanovistki and Vasseliva. However, Tenor Misha Didyk made hard work of Sliver Sleigh Bells and was the only soloist to struggle to be heard above the orchestra. However, anyone who enjoyed the excellent performance of The Bells, courtesy of Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, at the Barbican back in March could not have been disappointed by Noseda’s interpretation. He took us on the emotional and philosophical journey demanded by Edgar Allen Poe’s mystical poems with confidence, finally bringing out the Chorus’ full vigour in the terse climax of the Fourth movement, ‘Mournful Iron Bells’. This final section interposed mournful lyricism (including a wonderfully indulgent French Horn solo) effectively with fraught passion.

The emotional and dynamic peaks and troughs could have been higher and lower tonight, but the subtlety and detail in Noseda’s interpretation of each Rachmaninov gem showed both Rachmaninov’s endless capacity to excite and intrigue his audience and the conductor’s sensitivity to the composer’s extraordinary ingenuity.

****1