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Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
CD 1 [73:05]
Symphonic Dances, op. 45 (1940) [37:08]
The Bells, op.35 (1912) [35:45]
CD 2 [79:42]
The Rock - Symphonic poem after A. Chekhov op. 7 (1893) [14:50]
Prince Rostislav - Symphonic poem after A.K. Tolstoy (1891) [18:18]
Scherzo in D minor [5:30]
Caprice bohémien, op. 12 (1893) [18:33]
The Isle of the Dead, Symphonic poem after A. Böcklin op. 29 (1907) [22:03]
Olga Lutsiv-Ternovskaya (soprano); Leonid Bomstein (tenor); Vyacheslav Pochapsky (bass) (op. 35)
Russian State Symphonic Cappella
Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Valeri Polyansky
rec. Moscow Conservatoire, 1998 (CD1); 2001 (CD2)
CD1 first issued as Chandos CHAN9759; CD2 first issued as Chandos CHAN
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 8532 [73:05 + 79:42]

You simply cannot go wrong with this collection. It’s a budget price item with all the merits of a premium production and with each disc packed close to maximum playing time. There are no printed texts for The Bells but that’s the only compromise made.

The project derives from the Chandos’s finest years. Polyansky leads well prepared and excitingly spontaneous-sounding performances. Some of his Glazunov symphonies - also on Chandos - troubled me because of their tendency to linger and admire the scenery. There’s little of that excess here and yet he makes time and space for the many tender romantic moments. And it’s not all lush indulgence either: in the finale of The Bells Polyansky who is also the producer draws tactful attention to the horror-struck moaning massed horns at 7.10. The cavernously resonant acoustic suits this music extremely well and this is a conductor who goes with Rachmaninoff’s romantic grain rather than trying to wring out anything radically different.

The many solo instrumental strands in the Symphonic Dances are caressed and romantically italicised; unfailingly so. I was brought up on Kondrashin’s EMI-Melodiya version which is still extremely fine despite veteran analogue sound from the early 1960s. I have always been drawn to this work because of its emphatic rhythmic drive, the delirious troubadour role of the solo saxophone and the laisser vibrer tam-tam crash at the very end. Many conductors – presumably fearful of vulgarity - ignore the instruction. Kondrashin follows Rachmaninoff’s instruction and so does Polyansky. That crash here resonates into silence over almost ten seconds so no disappointment there. Polyansky and his orchestra communicate both the visceral rhythms of this music and an unabashed immersion in sentiment. [see also previous review]

Another feather in the Brilliant-Chandos cap is the line-up of solo voices in Polyansky’s The Bells. Not one of the three voices is anything less than dramatically splendid, secure of tonal production yet otherwise grandly Slav-toned. I would at least have expected – feared – Olga Lutsiv-Ternovskaya to have one of those patented soprano wobbles that I suspect are inculcated rather than a natural defect. Not a bit of it; she is simply magnificent. The same goes for Bomstein who is glorious in The Silver Sleigh Bells. Pochapsky is steady, gripping and poetic in The Mournful Iron Bells finale. The choir sounds big yet lacks nothing in focus.

The second disc is lower key with its mix of predominantly early Rachmaninoff but there’s still plenty to revel in. Take for example the distinctly Borodin-Rimsky inflected The Rock written at the age of twenty. It will have instant appeal if you like Balakirev Symphony 1, Rimsky’s Sadko or Borodin Symphony 2. This is Rachmaninoff in thrall to the Kouchka. Prince Rostislav is another early work from the composer’s late teenage years and it is in much the same style as The Rock with lush yet nicely nuanced work from the solo harp as well as some eruptively wailing horns at 11:50 and 12:10. The chirpy little Scherzo sounds like a slightly Russianised Mendelssohn – it ends in a charming little stagger and a final rush. The Caprice bohémien is from the same seam though there is more Tchaikovsky in this mix than in the other works and for me it is the least engaging of the three early tone poems. The Isle of the Dead is a late work and here sounds sumptuous but for some reason this version does not plumb the inky depths as magnetically as it can in other hands. It’s the only slight weakness in the set.

This coupling will suit very well anyone who has a passing interest in Rachmaninoff and is curious about exploring further. It would also be good for anyone who knows the symphonies perhaps through the Kondrashin, Svetlanov, Previn or Ashkenazy collections or the piano concertos and would like to know what else there is. Newcomers to Rachmaninoff who come to him from Tchaikovsky or Rimsky or Borodin will find sufficiently familiar landmarks to win them round. It’s the sort of set that should convert anyone into a Rachmaninoff enthusiast in one fell swoop. Of course if you prefer The Bells with some Prokofiev then go for the recent Previn EMI Gemini collection.

Rob Barnett


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