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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Bells [37:18]
Poem for soprano, tenor and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra
Text by Konstantin Balmont adapted from Edgar Alan Poe's poem
Sergei TANEYEV (1856-1915)
John of Damascus [22.48]
Cantata for four-part mixed chorus and orchestra
(The Bells) Marina Mescheriakova (soprano); Sergei Larin (tenor); Vladimir Chernov baritone)
The Moscow State Chamber Choir
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
(Rec: Moscow State Conservatory Great Hall, June 2000)
Deutsche Grammophon DG 471 029-2 [60:21]

A young admirer (a student cellist) of Rachmaninov sent him, anonymously, the symbolist writer Konstantin Balmont's Russian translation of Edgar Alan Poe's poem and asked him to set the verses to music; and so, in 1913, in Rome, Rachmaninov set to work on The Bells. The four types of bells as described by Poe - silver sleigh bells, golden wedding bells, brazen alarm bells and iron funeral bells - span the whole of human existence. Although the text is American, Rachmaninov's sound world is unmistakably and profoundly Russian. Rachmaninov observed:-

"The sound of church bells dominated all the cities of the Russia I used to know - Novgorod, Kiev, Moscow. They accompanied every Russian from childhood to the grave, and no composer could escape their influence. […] All my life I have taken pleasure in the differing moods and music of gladly chiming and mournfully tolling bells. This love for bells is inherent in every Russian. […] If I have been at all successful in making bells vibrate with human emotion in my works, it is largely due to the fact that most of my life was lived amid vibrations of the bells of Moscow."

Rachmaninov translated the four sections of the poem into four movements whose sequence corresponds to that of a classical-romantic symphony.

The character of Rachmaninov's music for The Bells may surprise those listening to it for the first time for it is not as straightforward as they might imagine. But one of the characteristics of great music is that it can say so many different things at the same time. The two opening movements devoted to sleigh bells and wedding bells are not all unconfined joy. In the opening movement the tenor and chorus are transported by the joyfulness of their sleigh ride:-

"…The little bells ring out,
their light silvery sound sweetly obsesses our hearing;
with their singing and their jingling they tell of oblivion…"

- oblivion - an underlying doleful tone reminds us that happiness is transient. A typical Slavonic melancholy suddenly, briefly, overtakes the joyous, ebullient music and the earnest tones of Sergei Larin add just the right level of gravitas.

Then the Lento second movement begins:-

"Hear the holy call to marriage of golden bells,
How much tender bliss there is in that youthful song…"

yet the music's opening casts shadows, it is as if the tenderness of newly married love is mixed with a warning, a foreboding, as if Rachmaninov is reminding us of the responsibilities of marriage and that there are bound to be storms ahead as well as sunshine. But the text is all dreamily romantic and Marina Mescheriakova offers prayer-like supplications for the couple and her voice is all tenderness and caresses.

But the peace is shattered in the demonic Scherzo:-

"Hear, the howling of the alarm bell,
like the groaning of a brazen hell…"

- and Pletnev's choir and shrieking orchestra create an atmosphere of danger and dread in a reading of great urgency and attack.

The final movement is a sombre Lento lugubre in C sharp minor with the strong yet doleful tones of Vladimir Chernov mourning above the grieving choir.

"Hear the funeral knell, lengthy knell!
Hear the sound of bitter sorrow ending the dream of a bitter life
The iron sound proclaims a funeral's grief.
And we unwittingly shiver…"

Yet despite the unrelenting gloominess of the text, Rachmaninov's treatment is not all gloom for there is defiance, and hope too - and, in the glorious melody, towards the end, consolation. This passage is particularly moving in Pletnev's sympathetic reading. Interestingly, there is also a distant echo of the agonising close of Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" and Rachmaninov's habitual reference to the Dies Irae.

The booklet helpfully gives not only a translation of Konstantin Balmont's Russian text (from which I have quoted above) that Rachmaninov set to music, but also Poe's original poem that is quite markedly different although close in sentiment.

Sergei Taneyev studied with Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein. As a teacher himself, his students included: Glière, Grechaninov, Medtner and Rachmaninov. He was almost pathologically lacking in self-confidence yet as a composer he was extremely meticulous in his working methods pre-planning his often highly contrapuntal works with great exactitude. His style of composition looked towards the west and indeed, John of Damascus shows influences of Bach through Beethoven and Berlioz to Brahms.

This short choral work, without soloists, is very approachable and fuses Russian folk and liturgical music with strict Bachian counterpoint. Refined four-part fugal writing introduces the first chorus ("I travel along a path that is unknown to me). Thrilling and dread fugal music for "On that day when the trumpet resounds through the dying world…" contrasts with a predominantly mood of relative calm.

A first class performance of Rachmaninov's thrilling choral masterpiece, in excellent sound, coupled with a work that deserves to be better known.

Ian Lace.

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