Recorded over four years ago this is a bold release of The Bells, a major Russian choral work in which a challenging benchmark was set twenty five years ago by Andre Previn. Since then there have been some distinguished performances committed to disc including that of Ashkenazy with the Concertgebouw, the orchestra, incidentally, to which Rachmaninov dedicated the work in 1913. All Russian recordings may be expected to have some advantage with this music, but the most recent under Valery Polyansky disappoints.
Here we have a Russian conductor, two male Russian-singing soloists (both from Bellorussia), and a distinguished Welsh soprano accompanied by an Irish orchestra and choir. It makes for a happy marriage. Anissimov is a sure hand on the tiller as he steers us from the jolly sleigh bells of the first movement through to the darkness of the funereal bell tolling at the end. The text, a version of an Edgar Allan Poe poem, reflects the author's pathological obsession with death and satisfies the Russian propensity to melancholia. Anissimov brings out the contrasts well and adds a delicious bloom to some of the gloom through skilful, flexible phrasing.
The Bellorussians supply a suitable idiomatic intensity to their solo parts and Helen Field, a highly successful Straussian soprano, acquires a Russian edge to a voice used to flexible melodic lines. Although the male half of the choir may lack that characteristic Russian depth, Anissimov drives them hard enough to produce a compensatory electricity.
Composed ten years earlier, the orchestral Fantaisie (The Rock) is a pleasing filler, the players clearly at home with the Celtic sounding pastoral rhapsodising of the first part (shades of Celticophile Granville Bantock) and Anissimov judges the Tchaikovskian climax later on just right.