Serge RACHMANINOFF (1873–1943)
Vesna (Spring), Op.20 (cantata for baritone solo, choir and orchestra) (1902) [14:36]
Three Russian Songs for symphony orchestra and chorus, Op.41 (1926) [11:29]
The Bells for chorus, orchestra and soloists, Op.35 (1913) [36:26]
Svetla Vassileva (soprano); Misha Didyk (tenor); Alexei Tanovitski (bass)
Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre
BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. live, Royal Albert Hall, London, 31 July 2011. DDD
Russian texts, English, French and German translations included
CHANDOS CHAN 10706 [62:53]

Chandos Downloads available from

Just recently I reviewed Gianandrea Noseda’s new recording of Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony and was impressed. Now, hot on the heels of that release, comes what is, I believe, the final instalment of his Rachmaninoff series for Chandos. If that’s the case then it appears that Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic haven’t recorded the Symphonic Dances, which is a shame.

The present disc includes most of a programme that Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic gave at the 2011 BBC Promenade Concerts. That was one of his final appearances – if not his very last appearance – with the orchestra as its Principal Conductor; he now has the title Laureate Conductor. He and the orchestra were joined by a trio of Russian soloists and by the Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg. The involvement of the choir was fitting on several levels. Firstly they bring a suitable Russian timbre to the choral music. In addition, however, the choir has links with both the main work on the programme and with the conductor. It was the Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre that sang in the first performance of The Bells in 1913, as David Nice points out in his very useful notes. Furthermore Gianandrea Noseda has strong connections with the Mariinsky, where he was appointed Principal Guest Conductor in 1997 – the first foreigner to hold the post.

Besides The Bells, Noseda chose to play two rather less familiar choral works by Rachmaninoff. The earlier of these is Spring. The Russian spring is reportedly something of a cataclysmic event, far removed from the relative gentleness of the English season, when the winter frosts are swept away and the new life bursts forth. If that’s the case – I’ve not experienced the Russian spring myself – then I’m not sure we quite get that in Rachmaninoff’s piece, though the music is far from insipid. It’s not a work I know well, I confess, but I didn’t find that the music made an indelible impression on me. I don’t think that’s the fault of the performers. The Russian choir certainly makes its mark with some fervent singing and the bass soloist, Alexei Tanovitski, is sturdy – I’m tempted to say stentorian. It’s fascinating to pick up in the orchestra a few tantalising similarities with the Second Piano Concerto, a contemporaneous work.

The Three Russian Songs is a later work and by the time he composed these settings Rachmaninoff had been in his self-imposed exile for several years. Rachmaninoff’s treatment of these songs certainly reveals a good deal of nostalgia for his homeland. In fact, though the complete title of the work declares them to be “for symphony orchestra and chorus” the full mixed choir is only deployed in the final piece. The first is for male voices and the second is for the ladies. The Mariinsky singers make a fine job of them.

However, without doubt the main interest in this release lies in The Bells, one of the composer’s finest works and one which, as David Nice reminds us, he referred to as a Choral Symphony. The four poems by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) may be by an American – in a Russian translation – but Rachmaninoff managed to make them seem and sound very Russian indeed. The choral and orchestral writing in this work – and, indeed, the overall level of inspiration – is in a very different league from the music we’ve heard thus far on this disc. The music brims over with urgency and deep feeling. Each of the three vocal soloists appears in one movement – the third movement involves the chorus only. Tenor Misha Didyk is heard first and his ringing tenor and Russian timbre is ideally suited to the music he’s given. Often the vocal line is demandingly high and sustained but Didyk negotiates his part very convincingly.

The second movement is described in the notes as a “wedding rhapsody” and so it is. However, this doesn’t prevent Rachmaninoff introducing a note of foreboding at times, not least in the orchestral introduction Svetla Vassileva has a gleaming soprano voice. Some listeners may feel her vibrato is too wide; I think it’s acceptable in this style of music and there’s no Slavic ‘wobble’ She offers committed singing and the orchestral accompaniment is finely done. The choir takes centre stage in the third movement, a virtuoso composition. I didn’t know until reading David Nice’s note that Rachmaninoff modified the very difficult choral parts for a Sheffield Festival performance in 1936 but here the professional Russian choir delivers the original music – and in some style. This prompts the question: which version of the movement do we usually hear? The singing – and orchestral playing – is vivid and exciting in this performance.

The finale contains the most profound music. We’re in the realms of The Isle of The Dead – and David Nice also draws a parallel with The Swan of Tuonela. That’s emphasised by the important, melancholic cor anglais solo near the start of the movement, which is played with great eloquence here. In this movement we hear again from Alexei Tanovitski. His first entry is extremely impassioned, setting the tone for his overall performance. Arguably, his is an appropriate sound and style for this music though some listeners may find, as I do, that it’s rather over the top and too histrionic. Hearing Tanovitski prompted me to dig out André Previn’s LSO recording from 1975 (EMI). John Shirley-Quirk, his soloist, hasn’t got the authentic Slavic tones of Tanovitski nor does he try to achieve the same level of histrionic power. But the English singer is more pleasing to hear and sounds less effortful, I feel. Further comparisons with the Previn version revealed that Sheila Armstrong, his soprano, may yield to Svetla Vassileva in terms of Slavic authenticity but that her silvery tone is more purely focussed. However, in the tenor department Misha Didyk has the edge over Robert Tear.

My reservations about Noseda’s bass soloist aside, this new Chandos version offers a performance of the finale in which Rachmaninoff’s magnificent music is delivered with all the necessary conviction. Indeed, the overall performance of The Bells is a good, vibrant one, which I enjoyed very much.

However, there is a “but”. The performances were captured live in the Royal Albert Hall and I wonder if this was the best acoustic for the purpose. True, there is an authentic concert hall perspective, especially in the sense that the choir is definitely positioned behind the orchestra. Yet in this capacious and resonant acoustic some of the usual Chandos impact is lost and I wonder whether a recording in, say, the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, might have produced better results. Chandos only provide the proper Russian text rather than a transliterated version. For non-Russian speakers the Cyrillic alphabet is impossible to follow but, to be honest, the choir’s words are so indistinct in the Albert Hall acoustic that it really doesn’t matter.

One pleasing feature of the recording, however, is that despite the fact that the recordings were made during a Proms concert I couldn’t detect audience noise and those who dislike applause will be relieved to know that this has been edited out.

One final point. I do wish an “industry standard” could be adopted for spelling the name of this composer. Chandos opt for Rachmaninoff - and they’re not alone in that – but, rightly or wrongly, many others use Rachmaninov. I don’t know which spelling is authentic but surely it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of the concert and recording industry to use one consistent spelling.

John Quinn

See also review of the download by Brian Wilson

A good, vibrant account of The Bells, though the recording lacks some of the usual Chandos impact.