Sir Simon Rattle has been an exclusive EMI
recording artist for as long as I can remember. If memory serves me
right he first signed with EMI around the time he began his long association
with the CBSO in 1980 and ever since he’s been one of the jewels
in the EMI crown. Following the recent deal by which Warner Classics
acquired EMI here we have Rattle’s first recording with no sign
of Nipper on the packaging.
Rachmaninov’s music has not been exactly central to Rattle’s
repertoire over the years though he has conducted some works. A long
time ago he made a recording for EMI of the Second Symphony, which I
never heard. That was with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the time
that he was their principal guest conductor. From memory the critics
found it disappointing and as far as I can see it’s not currently
available. There’s a 2011 live performance of the same symphony
on DVD which Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic recorded live in Madrid.
I haven’t seen that but William Hedley described the reading as
“very successful overall, with a natural feel for the music’s
On the evidence of this present disc a Berlin audio recording would
be an interesting proposition. Also on DVD is a recording of the Symphonic
taken from performances given by Rattle and the Berliners
in Singapore some three weeks after the Berlin performances that are
preserved on this CD. The DVD received an overall welcome from Leslie
So far as I’m aware The Bells
is a work that Rattle has
taken up fairly recently.
So far as I know this coupling is unique on CD but it’s good to
have these two great works available together. Rattle’s account
of The Bells
is very impressive: he has three excellent soloists
and the choral and orchestral contributions are first class. The Rundfunkchor
Berlin, superbly trained by Simon Halsey, announce themselves in tremendous
fashion with a really punchy initial entry in the first movement. The
choir contributes really well to all four movements but they are at
their peak - as they need to be - in the third movement. Here Rattle
makes the most of the many dynamic contrasts in both the orchestral
and choral parts and gets a vivid, virtuoso performance from his Berlin
forces. There’s often great energy in the music-making and this
seems to me to be an outstanding, thrilling account of the movement.
All three soloists acquit themselves extremely well. The Ukrainian tenor,
Dmitro Popov, is excellent, singing with that authentic Slavic timbre
and playing the leading role in a fresh, incisive account of the first
movement. The Slovakian soprano Luba Orgonášová brings
a big, operatic tone to the second movement, yet she can be sensitive
as well as passionate. The Russian bass, Mikhail Petrenko, is the real
deal in the last movement. His is a commanding, baleful vocal presence,
just right for this music. I was gripped by the powerful performance
of this movement. In addition to a very fine soloist the orchestral
response, beginning with a dolefully expressive cor anglais solo, is
very fine indeed and once again the choral sound is splendid. After
all the emotion of this movement Rattle brings the work home with a
gentle radiance in the short orchestral coda: here the music glows.
I’m not about to part with Svetlanov’s viscerally exciting
performance of The Bells
but this Rattle account is also one to which I’m sure I shall
I’m equally taken with his reading of the Symphonic Dances.
I’m a great admirer of Vasily Petrenko’s classy recording
of this work, still one of the best things he’s done on Merseyside
I wouldn’t wish to make a choice between Petrenko and Rattle:
both are excellent. The Avie sound for Petrenko is a bit more immediate
and exciting than the very good results that Rattle’s engineers
achieve - the Avie recording was made under studio conditions. In terms
of the playing, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic play out of their collective
skins for Petrenko but the Berlin playing is simply fabulous and there’s
a richness and depth to their tone that the excellent Liverpudlians
can’t quite match. To be truthful, I’m delighted to have
both versions in my collection.
At the start of the first dance Rattle achieves good weight in the orchestral
sound without the music ever sounding heavy. In the lovely wistful slower
music the solo saxophone is smooth and silky, with lovely woodwind tracery
around the saxophone’s melody. When the strings take up the tune
the sound is simply gorgeous. In the nostalgic coda (from 10:29) some
may feel that the Berlin string sound is just a bit too
I love it.
In the second dance Rattle offers a master-class in rubato. One almost
has the impression that the tempo is never the same in two successive
bars as he indulges in give-and-take and little nudges and hesitations.
I can well imagine that some may think this is an example of Rattle’s
alleged micro-management. I can only say that it all seems highly imaginative
to me: for much of the time the result sounds like music to accompany
a shadowy ballroom scene. It helps that the orchestral playing is absolutely
superb with Rattle’s every demand for light and shade realised.
Towards the end, when the pace of the music picks up appreciably, the
playing has a quicksilver lightness to it and the last bars just seem
to vanish into thin air.
The opening pages of the third dance are dexterous and vivacious in
this performance. The playing is tremendously incisive - the percussion
are especially so - and the music is driven along excitingly. The extended
slower section (3:26 - 9:54) is thereby thrown into sharp relief. In
this passage the playing is wonderfully rich of tone and the smouldering
passion is conveyed marvellously. When the tempo picks up again the
music, now complete with references to the Dies Irae, becomes more and
more exciting; once again the quality of the playing is amazing. Rattle
brings the piece to a thrilling conclusion, letting the gong reverberate
I’m no more inclined to give up Petrenko’s splendid account
of this marvellous work than I am to dispense with the Svetlanov account
of The Bells.
However, just as those two Russian conductors offer
a special experience in their respective performances so too Rattle
offers a memorable account of each work. It’s especially pleasing
to have this fine new account of The Bells
one hundred years
since the work was written. These are two of Rachmaninov’s greatest
works and Simon Rattle has done them proud with this exciting disc.
As I write there’s a good deal of speculation that when he leaves
Berlin Rattle will succeed Valery Gergiev as principal conductor of
the LSO. At the moment it’s just speculation but were it to come
to pass the combination of Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO could be a very
exciting one. Fingers crossed.