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An Imperial Stage, a Mariinsky Fairytale

Turning off onto the embankment of the Fontanka the hubbub of Saint Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt almost immediately melts away. In that pocket of calm stands the majestic Sheremetev Palace where I would be making my own Saint Petersburg debut in a recital of Sergei Rachmaninov's songs with two superb Mariinsky Soloists, Ekaterina Shimanovich and Natalia Evstafieva.

Walking into the concert hall nothing can prepare you for the resplendent mirrored walls and glistening crystal chandeliers.

An audience view from half way down the resplendent Sheremetev Palace concert hall

Up to this point of the Saint Petersburg journey as part of my British Council supported project Year of Music UK-Russia the events had been focused in the somewhat cosy and Bohemian atmosphere at the apartment of Rimsky-Korsakov where the Mighty Handful gathered together to share in conversations, rehearsals, meals and informal soirees. The Small Hall of the Theatre Museum, albeit on a grander scale, was also the kind of music room that one can imagine buzzing with dialogue - the scene for many musical experiments and works in progress. There was something very forgiving about the atmosphere of both venues.

By contrast, the huge staircase that spins its way into the double doored entrance of the long hall Sheremetev Palace makes it clear that you are about to enter a world where everything is on show. It feels like in its imperial past this must have been a ball room: a place not of experiments, but of finished results and debuts.

I was absolutely astonished at the level of care and the pride that had gone in to the preparation of this final concert of the Saint Petersburg series of events of the ‘Voice between Nations’ project. The Steinway & Sons concert D was impeccably tuned, regulated and voiced - set up to the kind of perfection that is at the same time faultlessly responsive, sensitively set up to be enhanced by the room’s acoustics, and so therefore as a result utterly unforgiving! It was one of those really special pianos that is only too pleased to magnify all the nuances you dare to make and entreats you to search for more; one of those pianos of which you can lose many hours in blissful oblivion of the nerves of the upcoming concert.

Photograph credit Liudmila Grigoryeva, St Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music.

Working on the programme for this recital had been a journey that relied entirely on mutual trust and the highest respect of each others' artistry. The selection of songs was tussled over that wonder of modern communication, WhatsApp. A bewildering array of emojis replaced the previously trusty question of ranking 'in order of preference'.

Rehearsals started as soon as I set foot in Saint Petersburg, and had been intense - spread in bursts over the preceding three days. The luxury of long, relaxed working sessions was almost immediately made an impossibility as Ekaterina was bravely soldiered on through illness. Neither the audience (nor indeed the project sponsors) knew about the necessitated changes to the programme, including the heartache of having to postpone for another time the hypnotic coloratura of Rachmaninov's Vocalise that had settled so well on our first day of rehearsal, nor see her gargling paracetamol to ease her pain.

Nevertheless, the power of the music made all these factors dissipated into minor inconveniences. The coming together of strong musical personalities always means that the space will be filled with an array of different interpretations of the music. To channel this into one cohesive vision requires flexibility and compromise. For Ekaterina and Natalia this means having to react in a way they might not expect to the piano's 'commentaries' to the text and unfolding narrative. For me, having to compliment an entirely different timbral spectrum and personality embodied by a soprano and mezzo soprano meant quite radically adapting the sound colours I asked of the piano from those I had envisaged in my private practise to the ones I could hear I now needed.

Following the customary 'dissection' of the rehearsal run-through it is when you hear that phrase - 'Hmmm, I feel comfortable!' - that you know the foundation has set. Those seemingly miserly words are the stamp that says the trust and respect is there. It is the seal of approval that says that the concert can embody that desired sense of spontaneity or artistic dialogue where there is freedom to move the parameters of the rehearsed interpretation. It means there is the confidence to create a 'living' and 'breathing' interpretation that evolves on stage, and is not simply a carbon copy of a successful rehearsal. Some people call it 'living dangerously' precisely because that element of spontaneity can be unpredictable. For me it's not about danger, but the euphoric sense of freedom as you push away boundaries.

Mariinsky Soloists Ekaterina Shimanovich (soprano) and Natalia Evstafieva (mezzo soprano). Photograph credit Liudmila Grigoryeva, St Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music.

It was sheer paradise to share in that moment of living music-making with Ekaterina and Natalia through Rachmaninov's music in the concert. A full house had assembled to hear the mastery of these truly deserving star soloists of the Mariinsky stage.

Photograph credit Liudmila Grigoryeva, St Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music.

Neither the imposing microphones or cameras of Mariinsky Tonmeister Ilya Petrov, nor the presence of dignitaries and high ranking diplomats, including Sir Michael Bird from the British Council, could put a cloud on that moment. On stage in an imperial hall designed to showcase a final product we had truly captured that rare, sacred artistic state that gives rise to something ephemeral that springs to life in that one transient moment, and despite its newness could not have gone any other way.

L to R: Sir Michael Bird, Dr Lidia Ader, myself, Ekaterina Shimanovich, Iain Burnside, and Natalia Evstafieva, after the concert.

A recording (even live and unedited) can never capture that essence fully, but as soon as Ilya Petrov's valiant attempt is ready I will share it on this blog. For now, the tiniest taster from 'pirate' recording from an audience member's spy cam...

Rachmaninov, A Fragment from Musset Opus 21 no. 6 - with Ekaterina Shimanovich.

@BritishCouncil @GuildhallSchool

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