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Finding Rachmaninoff

Shirley Ratcliffe looks at a new festival

The South Bank Centre will mount the first major London festival of Rachmaninoff's music on 6-23 May. Hidden Perspectives sets out to rediscover the broad canon of the composer's work. Vladimir Ashkenazy has devised the three Philharmonic Orchestra performances in cooperation with Amelia Freedman, Head of Classical Music at the Royal Festival Hall, who has programmed a complementary series of concerts.

Alongside familiar favourites watch out for The Bells - a choral symphony - in the opening concert on the 6th, and The All-night Vigil on the 7th; both works performed by the St Petersburg Chamber Choir.

The première of Tony Palmer's film Harvest of Sorrow on the 9th will be followed by a forum chaired by Rachmaninoff expert Geoffrey Norris with Palmer, Ashkenazy and Alexander Bazikov from the Rachmaninoff Institute in Tambor.

The composer's first symphonic poem Prince Rostislav is programmed with the 3rd Piano Concerto and 2nd Symphony on the 11th. Singers Sergei Leiferkus and Marina Shaguch will perform Russian core repertoire on the 12th.

Catch Variations on a theme of Corelli played by pianist Nikolai Lugansky (13th) and a recital for two pianos (Dmitri Alexeev and Nikolai Demidenko) on the 23rd. Other performers during the festival include Evgeny Kissin (17th), Mischa Maisky with Daria Hovora (14th) and the Florestan Trio (12th).

Of particular interest is the first UK performance in ten years of the opera Francesca da Rimini given in concert version on the 16th by singers Shaguch, Teraschenko, Levinsky and Tumanyan, London Voices, and the Philharmonia conducted by Ashkenazy.

The path of Rachmaninoff's third opera was not smooth. In 1898, Modest Tchaikovsky (brother of the composer) was approached for a libretto based on a 'Shakespearian subject'. He suggested an episode from Dante's Inferno centred on the figures of Francesca and Paolo. Fortunately – or perhaps unfortunately – the composer agreed.

After a lean period for composition Rachmaninoff made a start on the opera in 1900, but it was not until 1904 that he 'got down to some serious work' only to find problems with the libretto. Modest agreed to some changes which the composer again felt essential.

His troubles were still not over! On completion of the short score and the German translation in place, Modest insisted on further changes, which Rachmaninoff resisted because they entailed alterations to the music. A compromise was reached whereby the librettist's final version was separately printed for insertion in the published score. The first performance took place on 24 January 1906 in the Bolshoi Theatre as part of a double bill with The Miserly Knight, also by Rachmaninoff.

Copyright © Shirley Ratcliffe, May 3rd 1999