BBC Proms 2017 – Alexander Melnikov and the Latvian Radio Choir perform Shostakovich at the Cadogan Hall

Alexander Melnikov (piano, above), Latvian Radio Choir /Sigvards Kļava

Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87 (1950-51): no.1 in C major; no.2 in A minor

Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets, Op.88 (1951): To the Executed, The 9th of January

24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87: no.3 in G major; no.4 in E minor

Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets, Op.88 (1951): The last salvos have sounded; They’ve won…

24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87: no.7 in A major; no.8 in F sharp minor

Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets, Op.88 (1951): May Day Song

Cadogan Hall, Monday 14 August 2017

Listen to this concert on the BBC Radio Player

The Latvian Radio Choir‘s BBC Proms mini-tour has been marked by inventive programming, and this grouping of revolutionary texts, set to music by Shostakovich, was a mile away from the previous night’s chaste yet subtly uplifting All Night Vigil by Rachmaninov.

Here the choir settled in an ideal acoustic, Cadogan Hall, but with some unsettling songs. Shostakovich wrote the Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets in 1951, acutely aware of the need to please the powers that be but still writing from the heart in a style that builds on the big opera choruses of Musorgsky. The unaccompanied choir sang grisly tales of ‘two prematurely fallen fighters’ (To The Executed), then the people ‘riddled with bullets and lead’ (The 9th of January). Their delivery was sharp and incisive when required in the faster music, then cold and distinctly wintry in the composer’s slower thoughts, which were almost beyond solace.

It was down to Alexander Melnikov (above) to supply the effective contrast in excerpts from Shostakovich’s largest piano work, the 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87. A homage both to Bach and to his pianist friend Tatiana Nikolaeva, the cycle contains some of the composer’s most intimate and confidential thoughts. Running through each of the 24 major and minor keys, the work progresses as a ‘cycle of fifths’, with a Prelude and Fugue in each major key (for instance ‘C’) immediately followed by its relative minor key (in this case ‘A’).

Melnikov chose three ‘pairs’ – in C (with A minor), G (with E minor) and later on A (with F# minor). Each were closely linked to the choir’s texts, sentiments and tonality. The purity of C major was briefly cast under a shadow, the sunny Prelude countered by a thoughtful Fugue that emerged gradually into the attentive silence of Cadogan Hall. The rippling A minor Prelude flowed at great speed, as did the Fugue, but the G major prelude was solemn and magisterial, filling a much bigger space, a series of bright colours when compared to the downtrodden E minor Fugue.

As we moved from piano to choir the contrasts were striking, yet the emotions followed a clear path, so that when Melnikov returned he provided solace in A major. This cut to the sardonic humour of the F# minor Prelude, paired with a serene but baleful Fugue, a bridge to the empty triumph of the choir’s closing number, May Day Song.

This was a terrific concert, well planned and thought-provoking in its execution, especially given today’s political climate. Shostakovich was a composer under extreme duress at this time – but sadly that era of writing music is not so far removed as we think it might be.

Ben Hogwood

You can listen to Alexander Melnikov’s recording of the complete Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues on Spotify below:

BBC Proms 2017 – Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil with the Latvian Radio Choir

Latvian Radio Choir / Sigvards Kļava (above)

Rachmaninov All Night Vigil (Vespers), Op.37 (1915)

Royal Albert Hall, Sunday 13 August 2017 (late night)

You can listen to this Prom here

Once in a while it is good to be reminded that some of the most moving music does not have to rely on volume to make its point.

Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil is a case in point, sung here by the Latvian Radio Choir in a highly atmospheric late night Prom. This notoriously self-critical and doubting of composers believed in it as one of his very best compositions, and even wanted the central Nunc Dimittis sung at his funeral. Though designed to be performed in the course of a Russian orthodox day (beginning and ending at sunset) it lasts for just over an hour if performed in an unbroken span, and here it created a wonderful spell.

The work has been sung at the Proms three times before, in the Late Night slot each time, and its blend of music for the spirit and the soul is ideal for late night contemplation. That state of mind was easily reached here, in a clean and relatively understated way. Recordings of great Russian choirs performing this music show how great depth and volume can be achieved, but with six singers to each part the Latvian Radio Choir were daringly exposed, and their relative lack of heft encouraged the audience to listen more attentively.

That they did so was an indication of just how well observed this performance was. Delicately controlled by Sigvards Kļava, each section merged almost seamlessly into the next, and yet there was room for each hymn or anthem to breathe. The refrains of the third anthem, Blessed Is The Man, were beautifully observed, by now the reduced forces acclimatised to the cavernous Royal Albert Hall acoustic.

The pacing felt ideal too, so that when the bigger numbers – the Glorifying song of the Resurrection and the Great Doxology – arrived, they did not flag, and the high points of each were unfailingly hit. The longer melodic threads were beautifully phrased, unexpectedly drawing the parallels between this music and some of the big tunes elsewhere in Rachmaninov’s output, such as the opening of the Third Piano Concerto, heard earlier in the evening.

The standard of performance was high throughout, with a level of control and ensemble that never dipped below excellent. The sopranos were relatively bright in sound, and the basses controlled their notes down to the depths beautifully, not least the Nunc dimittis, where the audience were visibly straining to hear their descent. Earlier in this number the tenors showed restraint, but there was emotion in their voices nonetheless.

All these elements contributed to a night that frequently stopped the heart with its subtle but lasting beauty. The text, and Rachmaninov’s response, had a timeless feel that transcended this single concert experience, which will last long in the memory.

Ben Hogwood

You can hear the Latvian Radio Choir’s recording of the Rachmaninov All Night Vigil on the Spotify link below: