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Rachmaninoff: The Bells & Symphonic Dances Chor & Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Pavlovskaya, Dolgov, Markov, Jansons

Rachmaninoff: The Bells & Symphonic Dances Chor & Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Pavlovskaya, Dolgov, Markov, Jansons

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For its latest release on BR Klassik the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunk under its chief conductor Mariss Jansons has turned its attention to Rachmaninov with two masterworks that Rachmaninov himself regarded as his finest compositions: the choral symphony The Bells and the Symphonic Dances, his last completed orchestral score. Both were recorded live in concert at Munich.

Very much a Cinderella work, The Bells, which the composer described at different times as a choral symphony and also as a cantata, deserves wider circulation and certainly rewards repeated hearing. Rachmaninov was fired up to write the work following receipt of an anonymous text in Rome which he assumed was an original work by the Russian poet Konstantin Balmont. The text was in fact Balmont’s own free adaptation of the poem ‘The Bells’ by Edgar Allan Poe. Bells have a special significance for Russian people and one might imagine that for Rachmaninov the sound of bells in his Russian homeland evoked a bittersweet range of emotions, from intense joy to mourning. Various bell sounds are contained in Rachmaninov’s scoring: sleigh-bells, church bells, alarm bells, marriage and funeral bells. This is a striking live performance by the Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Jansons, supported by a fine trio of Russian soloists. In the opening movement - ‘The Silver Sleigh Bells’ - the playing conveys a crisp, wintry chill together with commitment and urgency. Singing with vitality and clarity, tenor Oleg Dolgov makes a considerable impression. In the movement ‘The Mellow Wedding Bells’, the music takes on a mysterious, rather sensuous quality with soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya displaying clarity and an unswerving approach to the text. In ‘The Loud Alarum Bells’, marked presto, the chorus and orchestra convey a heavy sense of tension and near-angst before a more positive tone develops. The baritone Alexey Markov, in the Finale, entitled ‘The Mournful Iron Bells’, intones splendidly and convincingly the grave yet hauntingly affecting text. In the substantial part for the cor anglais, there is some lovely playing - warm and mellifluous. Inspiring and powerful are the two words that best describe this reading from Jansons and his Bavarian players. Worthy of praise, too, is Simon Rattle’s outstanding live 2012 Philharmonie, Berlin account with the Rundfunkchor Berlin and the Berliner Philharmoniker and a satisfying trio of soloists on Warner. As with Jansons’ account, Rattle’s coupling is also the Symphonic Dances. Admirable, also, is the exciting and committed 1979 account from the RSFSR Yurlov Academic Russian Choir and USSR Academic Symphony Orchestra under Yevgeni Svetlanov. Originally released on Melodiya, I have the Regis reissue. Worthy of consideration, too, is the finely judged 2000 Moscow account from the Moscow State Chamber Choir and Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev on Deutsche Grammophon.

After finally settling in the USA in 1939, Rachmaninov completed the Symphonic Dances, his final orchestral, work at Long Island, New York in 1940. 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 quotations from some of his earlier works as well as including the Dies irae motif in the finale. Jansons and his players clearly revel in the brilliant orchestration. In the opening movement, Non Allegro, Jansons provides playing of potent drama as well as strong rhythmic impetus and a weighty percussion section. The affecting lyrical middle section is beautifully played, with the solo saxophone part especially notable. It is marked Andante con Moto (Tempo di valse) and, in Jansons’ hands, the waltz rhythms are imbued with an undertow of melancholy and a sense of near despair. The colourful woodwind and brass figures and pleasingly unified strings are a constant delight. In the Finale, the sumptuous playing from the Bavarians is quite outstanding, conveying a strong element of brooding and struggle. Jansons’ control of dynamics and transitions is striking here, together with strong and committed playing in the concluding section. Jansons’ conducts a riveting account of the Symphonic Dances, then, convincingly performed with character, passion and compelling momentum. It can stand comparison with the best recordings and probably even surpasses them. Simon Rattle’s powerful 2010 Philharmonie, Berlin recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker on Warner is certainly equal to Eugene Ormandy’s passionate and powerful 1960 Cleveland Hall, Philadelphia account with the Philadelphia Orchestra on Sony Classical. Other recordings to consider are headed by the excellent 2008/09 recording, full of character, played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko on Avie. There is much to enjoy in the recordings by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Lorin Maazel from 1983 on Deutsche Grammophon and by André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in 1974 on EMI Classics, both of which are splendidly performed and recorded.

Jansons has recorded both works at live concerts in the renowned acoustic of Herkulessaal, Munich, which the sound engineers have utilised to stunning effect, providing first class clarity and balance. Audience applause has been taken out and there is no extraneous noise to worry about. In the booklet the essay ‘Legacy of a Lost Homeland’ written by Larissa Kowal-Wolk is both readable and informative.

– MusicWeb International (Michael Cookson)
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    • Number of Discs: 1
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    • Label: BR Klassik
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