Live in Moscow
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Festive Overture, Op. 96 (1954) [6:30]
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Chant du ménestrel, Op. 71 (1900) [4:11]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Bells, Op. 35 (1913) [37:25]
Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14 (orch. José Serebrier) (1914) [6:36]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Khovanshchina: Entr'acte (Act IV) (orch. Leopold Stokowski) (1872-80) [4:47]
Wen-Sinn Yang (cello); Lyubov Petrova (soprano); Andrei Popov (tenor); Sergei Leiferkus (baritone)
Moscow State Chamber Choir, Russian National Orchestra/José Serebrier
rec. live, Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, April 2010. DDD
WARNER CLASSICS & JAZZ 2564-68025-5 [59:38]
This, the closing concert of the First International Rostropovich Festival, was apparently quite the event in Moscow. The program is imaginative and makes enjoyable listening, but I suspect that its principal interest will be neither historical nor musical, but technical. I've heard many fine-sounding albums from Warner Classics and its feeder labels, but this one, at its best, achieves a pellucid, near-audiophile quality. In the lighter textures, each strand is crisply defined, yet there's plenty of air around the sound, a sense of space that's retained as the sonorities fill out. The most heavily scored passages don't quite maintain this high level, turning slightly opaque but they're still very good, just not special. Still, to get such an overall fine result in a concert recording is particularly remarkable.
The featured work, Rachmaninov's cantata The Bells, languished on discs through much of the stereo era, at least in the West, but enjoyed a resurgence in the 1970s, with studio recordings from Previn (EMI) and Ormandy (RCA) joining a Kondrashin (Melodiya) licensing in the Stateside catalogues. One forgets that Rachmaninov wrote vocal music, including three operas, but his use of a rich harmonic idiom, vivid colors, and pictorial effects - rather than big, juicy themes as in the piano concertos - to evoke the desired affect is also atypical of him. The music is always "melodic," but, once past the first movement's catchy theme, the tunes are not the point.
José Serebrier is expert at eliciting expression through sonority and color, and the engineers' clear, uncluttered definition of the textures is an asset. After an effective orchestral introduction - pealing horns and wintry woodwinds and strings setting the cheerful mood - the initial vocal entrances are awkward. Tenor Andrei Popov's opening "Slyshish" ("Listen") gets stuck in an odd half-croon, as if the entry caught him off-guard; this seems to unnerve the chorus, which rather jumps on its response. Once past this skittish start, however, this movement goes well, and Popov's clear tone, forthright address and dynamic delivery are ideal. The other two soloists are a trade-off, with Lyubov Petrova's gleaming lyric soprano, maintaining its vibrant clarity as it ascends, affording some compensation for baritone Sergei Leiferkus's impassioned but wobbly declamation. The guarded affirmation of the long orchestral coda is effectively rendered, rounding off the piece nicely.
The cantata is flanked by four shorter, contrasting works. The once rare, now seemingly ubiquitous Festive Overture always makes an effect - assuming the orchestra can play it in the first place - but Serebrier finds the through-line connecting the various episodes, so the piece sounds more coherent, and less repetitious, than usual. The players don't always sound settled into the conductor's driving tempo for the fast section, and the percussionist in charge of the bass drum has an itchy trigger finger, or, rather, arm, noticeably so at 4:27.
Glazunov's lovely Chant du ménestrel has needed a new recording for some time, and this one fits the bill nicely. The cellist, Wen-Sinn Yang, has a bright, not overly nasal tone, though it doesn't expand on the A string in the Rostropovich manner (DG). But Serebrier, as is his wont, draws more nuance from the woodwinds in particular than Rostropovich's poker-faced maestro, Seiji Ozawa. The well-groomed but reserved version by David Geringas and Lawrence Foster (Eurodisc, LP) is also handily outclassed.
Serebrier rounds out the program with two transcriptions, perhaps as a homage to his mentor, Leopold Stokowski. The unfamiliar fourth act entr'acte from Khovanshchina works well; it's hard to know what exactly was Stokowski's contribution to this edition, but I suspect it includes the ominous low brasses that fill out the climax. Serebrier's own take on Rachmaninov's Vocalise sounds pretty standard at first, but it varies from, and sometimes thins out, the expected textures in subsequent paragraphs: the final statement of the theme is a delicate duet for clarinet and cello. The conductor's tender performance throws a few curve-balls along the way: the first unexpected ritard-and-tenuto, at 0:23, works beautifully, but later ones, while musically plausible, are stiff and sometimes tentative.
The Russian National Orchestra plays well, though their ensemble sonority is noticeably brighter than that of the deeper-toned orchestras of the Soviet era. The timings in the head-note include applause - fifteen seconds' worth after the Glazunov, for example, which is considerable for so short a track. The booklet, unfortunately, doesn't include texts or translations for The Bells.
Stephen Francis Vasta 

Pellucid, near-audiophile quality. Serebrier is expert at eliciting expression through sonority and color. 

see also review by Jonathan Woolf