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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Bells (1913) [36:53]
Symphonic Dances (1940) [35:55]
Tatiana Pavlovskaya (soprano); Evgeny Akimov (tenor); Vladimir Vaneev (bass) (Bells)
West German Radio Chorus; Lege Artis Chamber Chorus
WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne/Semyon Bychkov
rec. September 2006, Philharmonie, Cologne

Rachmaninov composed nothing finer than these two works. Towards the end of his life he observed that he believed that The Bells was his finest achievement, a statement that seems compelling enough. This choral symphony on Constantin Balmont's free translation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Bells is preoccupied with the workings of Fate, concerning the four aspects of human life - birth, marriage (love), terror and death - as symbolised by four kinds of bells: silver, gold, brass and iron.
The imageries evoked by the four sets of bells proved to be a potent source of inspiration, since their collective symbolism provided that large scale integration of contrasts which is implied by the title symphony.  Rachmaninov uses his assembled forces with resourceful imagination in order to characterise the natures of the bells, believing that the symbolism was highly significant: 'The sound of church bells dominated all the cities of Russia that I knew: Novgorod, Kiev, Moscow. They accompanied every Russian from childhood to the grave, and no composer could escape their influence.' The music attempts to capture the moods implied by these titles, and Semyon Bychkov’s Cologne performance is most impressive in the way that it generates special atmospheres. All praise too needs be given to the Hänssler recording team, for the recording has realistic perspectives and a strongly focused presence.
The first movement, The Silver Sleigh Bells, is scored for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra. The initial rhythmic idea is strongly characterised, largely because it is so expertly scored, and the mood thus generated pervades the whole movement save for the coda. The entry of the solo tenor, Evegeny Akimov, is certainly distinctive memorable, and he is also successful in the more lyrical moments.
The Mellow Wedding Bells, a lyrical slow movement at tempo Lento, employs a soprano solo with chorus and orchestra. The mood is one of an idealised happiness, with music which is sensuous rather than festive.  The orchestral textures are more delicate than those found elsewhere in the work, and again the solo role is pleasingly taken, this time by Tatiana Pavlovskaya.
The Loud Alarum Bells of the third movement deploy chorus and orchestra alone: no solo voice is used. The music is distinctive and colourful, and the complex textures and rhythmic changes contribute much to the drama.
The finale, The Mournful Iron Bells, is a dark Lento lugubre for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra, and Vladimir Vaneev is another idiomatic soloist in this strong team of performers.  Heavy rhythms create the atmosphere; so too instruments playing in their lowest registers. The extended melody of the cor anglais is beautifully played and sets the tone for the whole of this splendid performance.
Towards the end of his life, Rachmaninov wrote of The Bells: 'I worked on this composition with feverish ardour; and it remains of all my works the one I love the most.' Bychkov does justice to the composer’s vision. Among recent recordings that conducted by Neemi Järvi for Chandos (CHAN 8476) is particularly successful, though on the whole it is eclipsed by this new version, in both sound and musical experience.
Rachmaninov composed his Symphonic Dances towards the end of his life, during the summer and autumn of 1940. In Bychkov’s performance first movement is immensely impressive in its rhythmic strength, the colourful and subtle orchestration enhancing the distinctive outlines of the material. The very opening, for example, is sensitively paced in its release of the main theme. And the long and expressive melody in the lyrical central episode is atmospherically captured by the solo saxophone and then the ensemble strings.
The essential nature of the second movement is that of a slow and expressive waltz. The influence of Tchaikovsky looms large, with a brooding and powerful intensity as Bychkov moulds the music carefully and expressively. The recorded sound supports the music’s romantic indulgence. The finale calls once again on two favourite sources of reference for this composer: the music of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Dies Irae plainchant. Thus in the closing stages the music drives forward more urgently, and there is a struggle for supremacy between a Russian chant and the Dies Irae. At the point when the former becomes triumphant, Rachmaninov wrote 'Alliluia' in the score, until resolving on a series of huge crashes dominated by the resounding timbre of the tam-tam. Bychkov is undeniably effective here, but not quite as compelling as André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra (EMI 7 69025 2), who indulge the sound of the tam-tam more fully. 
Whatever the response to details, this imagery was important to Rachmaninov, who had for some time been in poor health. The three Symphonic Dances, his final composition, form a remarkable tribute to the strength of his creative spirit. In 1943, shortly before his death, he remarked, 'I don't know how it happened, it must have been my last spark.'
Terry Barfoot


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