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Sergei Rachmaninov - All Night Vigil ('Vespers'), Op. 37: Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor, op. 30. Peter Donohoe (piano), Rebecca Chellappah (mezzo-soprano), South West Festival Chorus, Gavin Carr (conductor), The Bath Spa Symphony Orchestra, Jason Thornton (conductor). Bath Abbey 26.2.2011 (JQ)

This was a concert of opportunities. There was the rare opportunity for a large amateur choir to sing one of the most challenging works in the a cappella repertoire. Then there was the opportunity for a largely student orchestra to accompany one of the country's leading pianists in one of the most demanding concertos in the repertoire. And for the audience there was the opportunity to hear two of Rachmaninov's finest works unusually juxtaposed in the same programme.

Rachmaninov's setting of the All Night Vigil, commonly known as Vespers, is one of the pinnacles of Orthodox liturgical music. He completed it in 1916, not long before he left Russia for a life of exile in the West. It consists of fifteen separate movements and it lasts for about an hour. It constitutes a formidable challenge for singers and before going any further I should say that enormous credit is due to the members of the South West Festival Chorus for learning all this music - and in a difficult and unfamiliar language - and for their sheer stamina in sustaining their collective concentration to pull off this performance. And credit too to Gavin Carr for training them and for guiding them through the work.

There was much to admire in the performance, which sounded to me to be generally secure, apart from one unfortunate mishap in the fourth section. Unfortunately, however, the Chorus suffers from the same problem that seems to afflict most amateur choirs these days: a shortage of men. In the programme some 57 sopranos were listed and 46 altos but there were only 30 basses and, critically, a mere 16 tenors. The inevitable result was that the choral sound was somewhat unbalanced with rather too much prominence to the soprano line and for much of the evening I struggled to hear the tenor line at all, especially in louder passages. As a choir member myself, I'm only too well aware of this problem and I can't understand for the life of me why choral singing seems so much less attractive to men than to women.

The balance issue aside, the performance was a good one and it had plenty of conviction. There were times when I'd have liked to hear a more ringing attack but perhaps that was attributable, at least in part, to the shortage of male voices. The choir had been well schooled by their conductor to pay proper attention to dynamics and this was a pleasing feature of much of the performance. However, one miscalculation regarding dynamics occurred in the fifth movement, the Nunc Dimittis. The unnamed tenor soloist coped manfully with the demanding tessitura of his solo role. Unfortunately, because he was singing from the middle of the choir, his line was rather swamped by the choral parts around him. Given the crucial importance of the solo part I think it might have been preferable either to have taken the soloist out of the choir for this movement and positioned him in the pulpit - from where the mezzo soloist sang in the second movement - or else to have reduced the numbers of the choir members, especially the ladies, taking part in this section.

So far as I was able to tell - I don't have perfect pitch - the pitch was maintained pretty well in each movement, which would have been welcomed by the basses, whose part is often low-lying, not least at the end of the fifth movement, when they are required to descend to a bottom B flat! Highlights of the performance included the sixth movement, 'Bogoroditse Devo', a deeply felt piece, in which the choir produced a lovely sound. Also very successful was the affirmative account of the vigorous eighth movement, which was strongly projected. There was also vigour in the final movement, which the choir sang with evident joyfulness.

In was clear that Gavin Carr was very much in sympathy with the music and even watching him from behind it was obvious that he was motivating and encouraging his singers throughout the performance. He conveyed the sweep and majesty of Rachmaninov's writing very successfully, nowhere more than in the penultimate movement where his spacious conducting imparted the right degree of breadth to the music. It must have been a memorable experience for the choir and they deserved the warm appreciation shown by the audience.

The Third Piano Concerto dates from 1909. Rachmaninov wrote it to play himself on a tour of the USA. It's a huge piece, lasting some forty-five minutes, and it makes colossal demands on the soloist. Fortunately, in Peter Donohoe we had just the man for the job. In a performance of commanding stature he surmounted all the many technical and interpretative challenges of the piece. In the first movement he offered Rachmaninov's longer cadenza, a piece of prodigiously difficult piano writing. In a formidable performance it would be wrong to say he made the cadenza sound easy - that would imply a facile approach of virtuosity for its own sake - but he was fully on top of it and he made it really exciting and a genuine summing up and elaboration of the material of the movement. It was a magnificent piece of pianism. Elsewhere in the movement he was alive to all Rachmaninov's mood changes, rising to all the virtuoso challenges yet giving full rein to the composer's melancholy rhapsodising also. Throughout the movement - and, indeed, throughout the whole concerto - there was a great strength to his playing, even in the quieter, more reflective passages. And it's worth emphasising again that his virtuosity was always at the service of the music and never an end in itself.

The resonant acoustic, which had been just right for the Vespers, posed some problems in the concerto since Rachmaninov wrote the latter piece with a concert hall acoustic in mind, of course. There are many places, especially in the first movement, where the orchestra is directed to play quietly while accompanying the soloist, whose dynamic is often much louder. In these stretches, from my seat about one third of the way down the Abbey nave, it was often difficult to hear the orchestra, who commendably respected the composer's instructions - and those of conductor Jason Thornton. The orchestra was largely composed of students from Bath Spa University, with some reinforcements, chiefly in the strings, from the professional Bath Philharmonia. Though it wasn't always easy to hear them in this acoustic it was clear that they had been very thoroughly prepared by Mr Thornton and that they were giving an assured and accurate account of the orchestral part.

They came more into their own in the second movement. The yearning introduction was persuasively shaped by Thornton. First we heard some good playing from the woodwinds and then the strings took up the argument, playing with firm, warm tone. The nostalgic and broodingly rhapsodic mood of the movement was very well conveyed by Donohoe and Thornton, who clearly enjoyed a close rapport throughout the whole concerto. In the finale it must have been a challenge to keep the orchestral rhythms crisp in the resonant acoustic but Jason Thornton ensured that his players did just that and their playing had good attack and was well together. At the keyboard, Mr Donohoe delivered just the right balance of dash and soulful romanticism. In the closing pages, soloist and conductor were as one in ensuring a barnstorming, romantic finished. Inspired by the occasion and the music, the orchestra gave it their all and the work was brought home with a triumphant flourish. The audience accorded the performers a sustained ovation, which their exciting and committed performance thoroughly deserved.

John Quinn

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