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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1973-1943)
The Bells (Kolokola), Op. 35 (1913)* [35:44]
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940) [35:53]
*Luba Orgonášová (soprano); *Dmitro Popov (tenor); *Mikhail Petrenko (bass)
*Rundfunkchor Berlin/Simon Halsey
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, Philharmonie, Berlin, 4-5 November 2010 and *8-11 November 2012 DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 9845192 [71:37] 

John Quinn reviewed this CD and I am using his recording details above, as my promotional copy of the disc came without any notes or texts. I was able to find the Russian text of The Bells and translations on the web with little difficulty. The primary reason for adding this disc to one’s collection of Rachmaninov is for the terrific account of The Bells, since there is a plethora of recordings available of the Symphonic Dances. Nonetheless, Rattle’s account of the latter also belongs up there with the best.
Rattle has assembled wonderful forces here for Rachmaninov’s choral symphony. The Rundfunkchor of Berlin may not be as authentic as one of the Russian ones, but they sing their hearts out and produce a vibrant and well-blended sound. Their handling of the Russian text is idiomatic as is that by the three Slavic soloists. I cannot imagine a better trio than Orgonášová, Popov and Petrenko for this work. Naturally the Berlin Philharmonic also shines. The cor anglais solo in the last movement is quite moving, but then all the instrumental solos are superb. It is little short of amazing how Rachmaninov conjures up the sounds of bells without actually using the real thing. I watched one of the concerts, from which this recording was taken, on the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall website and found that it added a great deal to my enjoyment of the purely audio version here. Now when I listen to the CD I see the various orchestral musicians and singers, as well as Rattle’s expressive gestures. It doesn’t come much better than this.
With the Symphonic Dances there are so many alternatives that everyone will have his or her own favorite version. Hitherto I have had Ashkenazy’s with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra as my reference recording. With Ashkenazy you get a real adrenalin rush; indeed he takes every movement at a faster pace than Rattle. His version is undeniably exciting, but I now find it rather brash and the recorded sound beefy and too reverberant. Rattle demonstrates that there is much more in the score than surface excitement. With his just employment of rubato, he brings out the romantic expression of the composer. He emphasizes numerous details that go unnoticed in other accounts. At times he could be accused of micromanaging, but it is easy to get caught up in the very details, especially the woodwind figures that often accompany the strings. I reviewed Rattle’s performance of this work on DVD when the orchestra toured Singapore. As far as interpretations go, they are very similar. One thing I noticed on the earlier recording was the reticence of the solo saxophone in the first dance. Here it has the prominence it should have, but in both cases the soloist plays with a minimum of vibrato - not a bad thing, mind you. Overall, the sound on this CD is fuller and more present than on the DVD. Indeed, the sheer opulence of the strings reminds me of my old LP with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra - to whom the work was dedicated - where I first became acquainted with the Symphonic Dances.
So, my advice is to get this for The Bells - clearly one of Rachmaninov’s greatest works and not that often performed - and you will also have a glowing account of the Symphonic Dances.
Leslie Wright 

Previous reviews: John Quinn (September 2013 Recording of the Month) ~~ Michael Cookson