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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Bells, Op. 35 [35:30]
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 [35:51]
Luba Orgonášová (soprano); Dmytro Popov (tenor); Mikhail Petrenko (bass)
Rundfunkchor Berlin/Simon Halsey
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 4-5 November 2010 (Symphonic Dances), 8-11 November 2012 (The Bells), Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany
Full sung text in Russian with English translation
WARNER CLASSICS 9 84519 2 [71:37]

It’s good to see Sir Simon Rattle taking the Berliner Philharmoniker into less usual recording territory. Despite the undoubted quality of these two Rachmaninov scores, which I regard as masterworks, have yet to become repertoire staples but it is to be hoped that the tide of relative indifference is turning.
Very much a Cinderella work The Bells, which the composer described at different times as a choral symphony and also a cantata, deserves a wider circulation. Along with the All-Night Vigil Rachmaninov considered The Bells as his two favourite works. The Bells was the composer’s follow-up to an earlier cantata entitled Spring. Rachmaninov was fired up to write the work following an anonymous text he was sent in Rome that he assumed was an original work written by the Russian poet Konstantin Balmont. It was in fact Balmont’s own Russian adaptation of the poem The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe. In a promotional video for the EMI recording Rattle talks about the “typical bitter-sweetness that you have with a composer like Rachmaninov.” One might imagine that for Rachmaninov the sound of bells in his Russian homeland evoked a range of emotions from intense joy to mourning.
This is a mightily impressive performance by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle assisted by a fine trio of soloists. In the opening movement - ‘The Silver Sleigh Bells’ - the playing conveys a crisp, wintry chill together with an eager sense of anticipation. Singing with an abundance of vitality tenor Dmytro Popov makes a real impact. In movement ‘The Mellow Wedding Bells’ the music takes on an aching tenderness with soprano Luba Orgonášová adopting a direct approach to the text and displaying a lovely bright tone. Marked Presto the performance of ‘The Loud Alarum Bells’ from the Rundfunkchor Berlin and orchestra carries a heavy sense of unease and foreboding, verging on the sinister before developing a more positive tone. Steady bass Mikhail Petrenko in the Finale titled ‘The Mournful Iron Bells’ splendidly intones a darkly solemn yet hauntingly affecting text. In the substantial part for the cor anglais the delightful playing is warm and mellifluous.
In addition to this splendid Rattle recording of The Bells with the Berliner Philharmoniker I also admire the exciting and committed 1979 account from the USSR Symphony Orchestra under Evgeni Svetlanov. It was originally released on Melodiya and has now been reissued on Regis. Also worthy of consideration is the finely judged 2000 Moscow account from the Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev.
Rachmaninov’s only work written entirely in America was the Symphonic Dances. This he completed in 1940 in New York. Delighted with the score the composer commented, “I don’t know how it happened, it must have been my last spark.” Rachmaninov was certainly in a highly reflective mood citing a number of quotations from some of his earlier works. In the opening movement Non Allegro Rattle provides a fine mix of mystery and drama with playing that has strong rhythmic impetus and a weighty percussion section. Marked Andante con Moto (Tempo di valse) Rattle’s dream-like waltz rhythms are enchanting, light as a feather with the composer’s sharp harmonies ensuring that the writing avoids melodrama. The colourful woodwind figures and wonderfully unified strings are a constant. Conveying a strong element of brooding and struggle in the Finale the sumptuous playing is quite outstanding. Especially notable are Rattle’s impressive transitions together with strong and committed playing in the concluding section. This is a penetrating account of the Symphonic Dances persuasively performed, passionate, polished and full of character.
Rattle’s account is certainly equal to the classic recording of Eugene Ormandy’s passionate and powerful performance from the Philadelphia Orchestra on Sony Classical. After hearing the cool, vividly clear quality of Ormandy’s studio recording from 1960 at the Cleveland Hall, Philadelphia it took some time for my ear to become accustomed to the very different warm and atmospheric Rattle account. Other recordings to consider are headed by the excellent 2008/09 account full of character played by the RLPO under Vasily Petrenko on Avie. Both splendidly performed and recorded there is much to enjoy in the recordings from the Berliner Philharmoniker under Lorin Maazel from 1983 on Deutsche Grammophon and from André Previn conducting the LSO in 1974 on EMI Classics.
Under Rattle’s assured baton the playing on this Warner Classics release just glows with intensity.
Michael Cookson  

See also review by John Quinn (September 2013 Recording of the Month)