Rachvelishvili excels in ROH Orchestra’s Russian programme

The lightning-quick aural pyrotechnics of Stravinsky’s 1917 Feu d’artifice which opened this Royal Opera House Orchestra
Concert fizzingly embodied the visual imagery of Vernon Scannell’s poem,
‘The Gunpowder Plot’. Antonio Pappano, bursting with rocket-like energy,
propelled the quietly whirring woodwind and twitching strings towards a
kaleidoscopic explosion: horns and trumpets forming a vibrant display of
canonic colour, staccato ascents surging from the orchestral depths to the
sonic heavens, harps spraying arpeggio-fountains. There was brief respite –
a pointillistic shower of string harmonics and flutters forming a
scintillating star-scape – but this was the merest pause for breath, before
the climactic sequence of crackers and crashes, surging and seemingly
infinite. Pappano’s precision mastered both the luminosity of Stravinsky’s
delicate will-o’-the-wisps and the flamboyance of the sparks and flames.

Feu d’artifice
was a stirring ‘Russian Five-inspired’ warm-up to the sequence of
Rachmaninov songs – as orchestrated by Vladimir Jurowski, grandfather of
the current LPO principal conductor, and the late Hungarian pianist,
conductor and composer, Zolt·n Kocsis – which formed the heart of this
programme of less familiar Russian repertoire. Rachmaninov composed 83
songs, or ‘rom·nsy’ as they are called in Russian. They have been collected
into opuses according to factors such as date and geography, but they do
not form ‘cycles’. In lesser hands, the pick-and-mix selection that we had
here might have struggled to form a lucid whole, especially if the audience
insisted on clapping each song, as they initially did here. Georgian
mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili and Pappano certainly illuminated the
wonderful diversity and range of these songs – from the dark, nasally
Slavonic tint of ‘Christ is risen’ in which Rachvelishvili projected a
religiosity of almost operatic intensity, to the softer reflections of ‘She
is as beautiful as midday’ in which her restrained, controlled line was a
hypnotic thread. But, they also provide insight into the cohesive aesthetic
of the songs. Rachmaninov saw them as belonging to a specifically Russian
milieu; when he left Russia in 1917, to make his living as an international
pianist, he wrote no more songs.

Rachvelishvili’s used the velvety glossiness of her mezzo to capture the
burgeoning excitement of the lovers depicted in ‘Midsummer Nights’, the
lyrical surges shining rhapsodically, while Pappano communicated the
restlessness of this song in which rapture is tinged with anxiety. The
naturalness of Rachvelishvili’s delivery in ‘Come, let us rest!’ was
compelling, as she persuasively embodied the poetic persona who dreams of
angels’ songs and visions of heaven, shining like a jewel. And, in the
closing orchestral episode, as the clarinet echoed the fading vocal line,
Pappano evoked this world of her imaginings, the music seeming to carry us
‘elsewhere’: “My addakhnjÛn …/ My addakhnjÛn …” (We will rest …). ‘When
yesterday we met’ was intimate, and the string playing – by solo players at
the opening, then luxuriously enriched – beautiful. What a pity that one
particularly wheezy audience member, here and elsewhere, saved their most
vigorous hacking for the closing cadence.

Rachvelishvili’s performance was rapturously received, and she generously
offered more. Her first encore, ‘Here it is so fine’, painted an exquisite
vision of the distant river, glittering like fire, and meadows, a carpet of
colour, reaching the apex of dreamy loveliness in the soaring final line
where the pianissimo high B was floated tenderly and with absolute vocal
security. Rachmaninov was not averse to transcriptions and orchestrations
of his songs, and made several of the latter himself, including of his most
famous song, ‘Vocalise’. I do not know if it was the composer’s own
orchestration that we heard here, but we enjoyed a glorious vocal rhapsody,
spun with absolute control, as Rachvelishvili sustained the nuance and
interest, never letting the tension of the phrases slacken but not pushing
the line too hard.

Pappano chose to conclude his Russian programme with Tchaikovsky’s
Orchestral Suite No.3, offering us a welcome opportunity to hear a work
which, like the composer’s other three suites, which were all composed in
the period between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, is seldom programmed in
the concert hall. Freed from the ‘rules’ of symphonic form, Tchaikovsky’s
imagination seems to have flourished, if the wealth of lyricism and colour
is anything to judge by. It’s not surprising that the Third Suite was
well-received when premiered in St Petersburg in January 1885, conducted by
Hans von B¸low, an occasion which led Tchaikovsky to write to Madame von
Meck: “I have never seen such a triumph. I saw the whole audience was
moved, and grateful to me. These moments are the finest adornments of an
artist’s life. Thanks to these it is worth living and labouring.”

One imagines that the composer would have been similarly pleased and proud
to hear this vivid, dynamic performance by the ROH Orchestra. Each time
Pappano dipped his baton into Tchaikovsky’s many-coloured paint-pot, he
found a new hue or timbre, and he drew finely textured images of detail and
clarity, aided by some superb playing from his musicians. The flowing …lÈgie throbbed with a perfect balance of pain and passion, the
ache enhanced by a series of beautiful woodwind solos by clarinet, oboe
and, at the close, cor anglais. After an expansive Valse mÈlancolique which was sometimes wracked with anxious cares, the Scherzo was a whirlwind of pianissimo virtuosity, so
fast, precise and delicate that one almost held one’s breath, as if
watching a Formula 1 driver negotiate the twists and turns with pinpoint
exactitude. The ROH Orchestra stayed securely on track, punctuating the
close with a tutti fortissimo full-stop. ‘Beat that!’ they seemed
to say, as concert leader smiled at his maestro. No wonder the audience
couldn’t resist showing their appreciation.

Tchaikovsky himself started the tradition of performing the final movement
as a separate concert piece, and the Theme and Variations – which
were choreographed by George Balanchine – is more familiar than the
preceding movements. Pappano brilliantly defined the diverse moods and
rhythmic character of the unfolding variations. Concert Master Sergey
Levitin relished the virtuosity of the cadenza which links the nine and
tenth variations, and the solo violin melody in the latter was warm of tone
and playful in spirit. The concluding Polacca was grand and

The ROH musicians and their conductor had clearly enjoyed themselves, as
had the audience who vigorously showed their deep appreciation, and their
affection for Pappano. Despite being recalled to the stage numerous times,
he declined to give them the encore they desired, gesturing with a wry
smile that it was ‘time for bed’. One imagines that the executive
management must hope that at the end of the 2022-23 season, when Pappano’s
current contract will end, that they can prove more persuasive.

Claire Seymour

Anita Rachvelishvili (mezzo-soprano), Antonio Pappano (conductor),
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Stravinsky – Feu d’artifice; Rachmaninov – ‘Christ is risen’ Op.26
No.6, ‘All things depart’ Op.26 No.15, ‘So dread a fate I’ll ne’er believe’
Op.34 No.7, ‘As fair as day in blaze of noon’ Op.14 No.9, ‘Midsummer
nights’ Op.14 No.5, ‘When yesterday we met’ Op.26 No.13, ‘Come, let us
rest!’ Op.26 No.3, ‘How fair this spot Op.21 No.7; Tchaikovsky – Orchestral
Suite No.3 in G major Op.55

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Friday 8th February

product_title=Royal Opera House Orchestra Concert, ROH Covent Garden
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Anita Rachvelishvili (mezzo-soprano)

Photo courtesy of Zemsky/Green Artists Management