Classical: The old devil

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OUTSIDE RUSSIA, Rachmaninov's operas are the least known part of his output. His third, Francesca da Rimini, is based on Canto V of Dante's Inferno, to a libretto by Tchaikovsky's brother, Modest. Rachmaninov's mastery of sweeping dramatic narrative is abundantly clear in his orchestral works, but he complained that Modest gave him too few words, and in particular no proper duet for Francesca and Paolo.

Yet this doesn't seem to have prevented Rachmaninov from shaping a compelling denouement which grows out of the hapless lovers reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. Even with voices as steely strong as those of Marina Shaguch and Vitali Taraschchenko on Sunday night, would we really need more?

Francesca's husband, Paolo's brother Lanceotto, is the wronged party with whom we cannot sympathise, and was sung with an effectively bitter throatiness by the baritone Sergei Leiferkus. But the real glory of the work is the Prologue, in which Virgil's ghost shows Dante the first circle of hell. The cavernous bass Barseg Tumanyan and heroic young tenor Ilya Levinsky were both thrilling here. It builds up in an impressively controlled crescendo, saturated with chromatic scales, to an overpowering depiction of a whirlwind for the whole orchestra, as the chorus of the damned (London Voices and Trinity College of Music Choir) wail harmoniously.

Vladimir Ashkenazy's extremely energetic conducting of the Philharmonia orchestra, as well as the top-flight cast, made a brilliant case for an exciting work - that is, given that you have a taste for late-Romantic Russian fatalism.

A very different Rachmaninov occupied the first half of the concert, with his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The cool and sharply etched brilliance of the solo pianist, Mikhail Pletnev, was almost bound to make the orchestra sound a bit blunt by comparison. But he and Ashkenazy were together all the way and Pletnev kept a stylish detachment, casting this glimpse of Rachmaninov's old romanticism in an ironic if not completely unsympathetic light.

Adrian Jack