As Gianandrea Noseda steps back from the helm of the BBC Philharmonic after nine years, it won't only be his way with Italian music that the orchestra misses; his affinity with Russian repertoire, honed over an even longer stretch as principal guest at St Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre, has been a hallmark of his tenure, too. The first of his two farewell Proms brought the festival's Choral Sunday to a close with a programme devoted to Rachmaninov.
The choir was the Mariisnky Theatre Chorus, whose idiomatic Russian was a bonus, but who often sounded oddly underwhelming in the Albert Hall in a first half comprised of intriguing rarities. That may have had something to do with the music itself. Spring, an early cantata in which Alexei Tanovitski was the velvety bass soloist, is full of evocative writing, but Rachmaninov's mature skill at orchestration was still to come; the players often seemed either to mask the singers or to leave them unsupported. And the fascination of the Three Russian Songs is less in the vocal melodies – flatly delivered by the basses, more beguilingly by the altos – than in the deliciously tangled orchestral web Rachmaninov weaves around them. In between, Noseda drew playing of balletic poise in two dances from Rachmaninov's teenage opera Aleko.
The second half picked up immediately with the wordless Vocalise, sung by Svetla Vassileva with a glowing soprano and astonishing breath control. Then, finally, a mature choral masterpiece: The Bells, in which all Rachmaninov's powers of evocation hit their stride. Led by Misha Didyk's penetrating, silver tenor, the soloists soared, the choir bloomed, and Noseda powered the orchestra through thrilling climaxes to the funereal closing bars. Manchester will still be seeing a lot of Noseda – he is retaining a link with the orchestra as conductor laureate, and his driving energy is something it won't want to lose.
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