i RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909) [43:15]
The Bells, Op. 35 (1913) [34:36]
Van Cliburn (piano)
Elizaveta Shumskaya (soprano), Mikhail Dovenmann (tenor), Alexei Bolshakov (bass)
Russian Republic Capella/Alexander Yurlov
Symphony of the Air, New York (concerto), Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin
rec. Carnegie Hall, New York, live, 19 May 1958 (Concerto); Moscow, December 1962 (Bells)

As a strap-line Praga have "Kirill Kondrashin, Soviet Ambassador". Van Cliburn (1934-2013) was also an ambassador, but for the USA, when he travelled to Moscow in 1958. He walked away with the Gold Medal at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition. His performances were filmed and, precious artefacts that they are, survive on DVD (review).

The present recording of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto was made live in concert when Kondrashin (1914-1981) returned the compliment by travelling to the USA to conduct in New York. Van Cliburn was still basking in the ticker-tape adulation of a local boy made not just good but supreme. It's well known and has been reviewed here by Jonathan Woolf when issued by RCA in 2005. It's strong on clean-textured romantic philosophical reflection rather than pulse-racing ardour. He releases the leash in the last five minutes and there is emphatic nobility at the end of the first movement.

As for this Soviet version of The Bells it is venerable but vivid. I don't know of a more glorious tenor than Dovenmann in this work. While there's a perhaps predictable shrill, resinous excitement about Shumskaya, Bolshakov is oaken sturdy. The choir is incisive and aureate of tone but I did wonder if Praga had pulled back on the gain controls for their first entry. Perhaps this was also reflected in the LPs (EMI-Melodiya SLS847). The performance is exceptional, possessed even but it's worth remembering that Rachmaninov had only recently been rehabilitated in the USSR. Even so, these and other tapes from the 1960s including Kondrashin's Bolshoi Orchestra Symphonic Dances are difficult to top even now. It was not as if a performing tradition for these scores had had much of a chance to take root. These recordings and those of Golovanov from an earlier generation witnessed a performing style in germinal creation. The recording cannot hope to report the amount of detail to be found in later versions such as those from Serebrier and Polyansky. The booklet includes the words but in English only not the transliterated sung Russian.

Praga - who label this disc, 'Limited Edition' - report that this is a SACD re-mastered from live broadcast recordings. I am fairly sure that the 'live broadcast' label applies to the Concerto but I do wonder about The Bells. As far as I know it's from a Melodiya original.

The Praga disc joins another of their Kondrashin revivals: this time of Shostakovich 13.

A far from obvious pairing: a thoughtful rather than heady live Third Concerto and a possessed Soviet era The Bells which is likely to be new to many in the post-LP generation.

Rob Barnett

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