tue 23/07/2024

Proms 37 / 38 review: Latvian Radio Choir, Gavrylyuk, BBCSSO, Dausgaard - numinous Rachmaninov triptych | reviews, news & interviews

Proms 37 / 38 review: Latvian Radio Choir, Gavrylyuk, BBCSSO, Dausgaard - numinous Rachmaninov triptych

Proms 37 / 38 review: Latvian Radio Choir, Gavrylyuk, BBCSSO, Dausgaard - numinous Rachmaninov triptych

Symphony, concerto, chants and Vespers combine for a vintage night at Royal Albert Hall

How it began: the Latvian Radio Choir process down to the Arena singing a Russian Orthodox ChantAll images by Chris Christodoulou/BBC

So it was Rachmaninov night at the Proms, but with a difference: a trinity of works sacred and profane, the first two introduced by the Latvian choir due to perform the third singing harmonised Russian Orthodox chants of the kind on which the composer based so many of his supposedly late-romantic inspirations.

That was bound to enliven a bog-standard programme of the Third Piano Concerto and the Second Symphony. But there was plenty of fresh food in soloist Alexander Gavrylyuk’s singular take on "the Rach Three", and Thomas Dausgaard, principal conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, was never going to wrap one of the longest and most opulent of Russian symphonies in a perfumed haze.

The start, like the silence at the end of the late-night Prom nearly five hours later, was simply magical: male voices of the Latvian Radio Choir coming from outside the auditorium, ladies leading the way down into the Arena before the singers, having easily parted the prommers, bifurcated to exits left and right. Then Dausgaard  provided the launching pad for the piano's opening theme - with similar stepwise contours to what we'd heard, the Easter chant “Grob Tvoy, Spase" - without the slightest pause for breath (he's used to magical segues: in one of the most memorable of all Proms back in 2010 with his fellow Danes, Ligeti glided straight into Tchaikovsky).Alexander Gavrylyuk at the PromsGavrylyuk (pictured above) was mystically soft in that opening, only opening out to orchestral-style roars at key points as well as the leonine cadenza which so strikingly takes the place of a straight recap. His most individual facet was his Puckish wit, transcendentally sparkling, laugh-out loud in a scherzo glissando and mercurial in the high-wire acts of the finale. From where I was sitting, it looked as if, head down, he was letting Dausgaard do all the following; but it was not a limelight-stealing performance beyond Rachmaninov's bounds (the orchestra, after all, is most often subordinate here). Still, the conductor's congenial collegiality was always there for him.

The encore was a good choice, though not a Rachmaninov piano original: the late lamented Zoltán Kocsis's transcription of the Vocalise - another stepwise inspiration - with more pearly filigree on the main theme's return. A half-hour solo recital from Gavrylyuk between the first Prom and the second would have been the icing on the cake, but let's not be too randy for Rachmaninov.Dausgaard at the PromsDausgaard (pictured above with the BBC Scottish Symphony strings) always keeps romantic symphonies on the move, sometimes too much so, but only occasionally here (once you've heard the Svetlanov slow burn in the introduction and Adagio, any speeding towards climaxes feels uncomfortable). The first movement proper was quick, supple and lively enough to welcome the exposition repeat. though Albert Hall acoustics and the innate soft-grained quality of BBC Scottish Symphony violins muted higher frequencies; full marks to the nervy edge of violas, though.

Whether or not this was an ideal companion for the concerto is another matter: more paring-down of textures in a late work like the Symphonic Dances might have worked better; but on its own terms, the saturated yearning stretches of middle-period Rachmaninov, capped by a rollicking festival of a finale, worked well enough. And the second Orthodox preface, “Svete tikhy” in a different setting from the one in the Vespers shimmering down from the Gallery before the brooding symphonic motto echoed its narrow-intervalled devotion, worked almost as well as the first.Latvian Radio Choir in the Vespers

The 24-strong Latvian Radio Choir’s recording of the All-Night Vigil, as we should learn to call “the Rachmaninov Vespers,” was one of the few that came anywhere near the classic St Petersburg Cappella versions, and hearing theLatvians live offered further enlightenment: this is not an ensemble where you praise the basic sound, but rather multiple sounds given the infinite flexibility pf tone and movement under Sigvards Kļava. The sopranos could impersonate little bells in the “Shestopsalmie”, all the woman the more sonorous variety early in the “Blagoslaven yesi”, the one which culminates in the big, syncopated “Slava” sequence Rachmaninov quoted in the swansong Symphonic Dances. There were out-of-body experiences in the later “Velichit dusha”, with its astonishingly varied refrains.

A brief disappointment came early on – was there not a single tenor voice sweet enough to carry the famous line in the Song of Simeon? Better a group than an inadequate solo, but shipping in a light lyric Latvian opera singer would not have been a bad idea. But then the next setting, “Bogoroditse devo,” was such a perfect example of how a nimble ensemble can take you from exquisite pianissimos to a big climax in no time that all was quickly forgiven. Sometimes, given the right responsiveness from the performers, the Albert Hall comes its own as a numinous presence, helping to establish what LRC tenor Kārlis Rūtentāls described in the programme as a “borderless sacred space”: the 2013 Parsifal was one such occasion, and this offered another.


The transcription of Rachmaninov's Vocalise given as the encore is by Zoltán Kocsis; I'm not aware that Horowitz made a transcription of this.

Thanks for clarification. I took it on the authority of one of Gavrylyuk's representatives that the transcription was by Horowitz and appears on one of AG's CDs. Shall correct.

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