Russian Soul: The Story of Rachmaninov in Song

Perth Theatre

As well as Perth’s wonderful concert hall, the redevelopment of Perth Theatre has given the Fair City another adaptable small music stage in the Joan Knight Studio. It was the ideal compact venue for this old-school three-hander by soprano Ilana Domnich, pianist Sholto Kynoch and narrator, journalist and broadcaster Michael White.

As White conceded early on, the life of Rachmaninov is not an especially happy tale, and he was, famously, a far from cheery chappy. Even when he found material success in exile in the West, that distance from home – and a picture of Mother Russia that no longer existed – has made the scowling six-footer with the massive keyboard-spanning hands a bit of a caricature.

White does his best to humanise him, and is careful to inject a bit of reality into the cliches of Rachmaninov’s life in his script, but it would be generous to say that we get a fresh picture of the man from the show. There is a glimpse of the fake-Russian idyll he created in his homes that intrigues, and it would have been good to learn more of his non-musical enthusiasms for speed-boats and fast cars, but, understandably perhaps, the focus is on the works.

Those, sadly, create the main structural problem with the show, and one which, to be fair, White acknowledges. Rachmaninov wrote no songs in the years of his Western success, so the material Domnich has to sing – which she does beautifully – all comes from the years before the 1917 Revolution, when the troubles of Rachmaninov’s life still lie ahead of him.

The instrumental music that made him famous, from the C sharp minor Prelude to the Paganini Variations, are illustrated by a few bars from each in the hands of Sholto Kynoch, which, inevitably, only leave the listener wanting to hear more.

Rachmaninov, I suspect, would have found that observation depressing, and the efforts of White and his colleagues to tie themes of the songs to elements of the life, albeit after the fact, are undeniably inventive, but it is debatable whether the structure of the presentation succeeds.

That said, the opportunity to hear Domnich sing Spring Waters and A Dream is worth the price of admission, even if she seems less comfortable away from her native tongue in the wordless Vocalise.

Keith Bruce