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Hampstead Arts Festival: Rachmaninov songs from the heart

07 November, 2019 — By Michael White

Sergei Rachmaninov, pictured in 1897. Image: Glinka Museum of Moscow.
Below: Soprano Ilona Domnich

WHO wrote the most romantic songs of all time? Schubert? Schumann? Irving Berlin? Paul McCartney?

Some would say Rachmaninov. And he wrote many, from the heart, with aching beauty. There are songs of longing, songs of loss, of passionate desire and pain, and (sometimes, though not often) radiant happiness.

In Britain, where so few of us speak Russian, the Rachmaninov songs aren’t so standardly performed as his concertos and orchestral works. But there’s a chance to hear them on unusual terms next Tuesday (November 12) as part of this year’s Hampstead Arts Festival – sung by the ravishing Russian soprano Ilona Domnich and accompanied by the disting­uished pianist Sholto Kynoch.

What you’ll get are the songs embedded in the story of Rachmaninov’s life. And I have to declare an interest here, because the life is narrated by me. But that aside, Rachmaninov’s story is one of the most dramatic in music history, starting in Imperial Russia, ending in Beverley Hills, sweeping through old and new worlds, penniless exile and comfortless celebrity.

By 1917 he was the risen star of Russian music with fame, fortune and an idyllic country estate to which he was devoted. But then came the Revolution. He was forced to flee, and left overnight in the depth of winter with nothing but the clothes he wore, a couple of bags, and 500 roubles.

Arriving in America, he had to reinvent his career – and did so very successfully but against the gloom of enforced exile. For the rest of his life he pined for Russia, maintaining a pseudo-Russian lifestyle in his various homes but never able to go back. When he died in 1943 he was buried in a small town in upstate New York, bizarrely called Valhalla. And when, in 2015, the Russian authorities tried to reclaim his body, the family refused.

Ilona Domnich is herself an exile, living here in Britain – but with her, it’s voluntary. Born in St Petersburg, she was spotted by the legendary singing teacher Vera Rosza and brought to London on a vocal scholarship at the RCM. Since then, she’s sung Tatyana/Eugene Onegin for Grange Park Opera, Rosina/Barber of Seville for English National Opera, appeared with the Halle and City of Birmingham Symphony orchestras, and was singled out by Opera Now as one of the “new generation of sopranos destined to have impressive careers”.

Rachmaninov’s songs lodge, she says, deep in her heart. And you can hear what that means at the Hampstead Arts Festival recital – Russian Soul: the Story of Rachmaninov in Song, 7.30pm, Tuesday November 12, St Mark’s Church, Hamilton Terrace, NW8 9UT (nearest tubes St John’s Wood or Maida Vale). £18, students £12. Book:

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