Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) The Bells, Op 35, Poem for orchestra, chorus, soloists. (1913) [41:39] Spring, op 20, Cantata for baritone, chorus and orchestra (1902) [17:54]
Vocalise, Op. 34 No 14 (orch. V Klin) [8:52]
Galina Pisarenko (soprano); Alexei Maslennikov (tenor); Sergei Yakovenko (baritone)
Yurlov Russian Choir; USSR Symphony Orchestra/Evgeni Svetlanov
rec. 1973 (Vocalise); 1979 (The Bells); 1984 (Spring)
English translations included ALTO ALC1314 [69:25]
This compilation of Rachmaninov recordings by Evgeni Svetlanov was previously released on the Regis label and was warmly welcomed by Rob Barnett, who described it as “a compellingly attractive purchase”. It’s good that Alto has restored the performances to the catalogue. However, while sharing Rob’s enthusiasm for this release I feel duty bound to point out that there is another Svetlanov recording of The Bells in the catalogue. That’s a live performance, captured at what turned out to be the conductor’s last concert, given in London in 2002. I described the release, coupled with Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, as “a phenomenal disc” (review).
I don’t resile from that verdict but the performance that’s preserved here, presumably a Melodiya studio recording, is a pretty strong contender too. The performance benefits from three excellent Russian soloists. For example, soprano Galina Pisarenko is the real deal. She’s a very fine singer who offers fervent, ecstatic singing in the second movement. Just as impressive is baritone Sergei Yakovenko who is a commanding, expressive presence in the fourth movement. The choir sings with great commitment and no little accomplishment while the orchestral playing is excellent. Svetlanov really has the measure of this score and directs an eloquent and exciting performance. This is a recording that shows him at his considerable best.
The recording is rather up-front and the choral sound is particularly vivid. Those who grumble about choirs being recorded too backwardly in recordings with orchestra should have no cause for complaint here. The sound is pretty good for its age though the 2002 live recording, mentioned above, achieves a better balance and also a better perspective.
Spring is not too often heard and I’m sure James Murray is right to attribute this to the requirement for large forces to perform a relatively short work. It’s a good piece, though, and listeners may be intrigued to hear one or two brief pre-echoes of the Second Symphony. Five years on from the recording of The Bells Sergei Yakovenko’s voice seems slightly less full but that may be simply to do with the recorded sound. His singing is mightily impressive as he delivers an almost operatic performance as the cuckolded husband who draws back from killing his unfaithful wife due to the onset of Spring. This was a role written for Chaliapin and it seems to me that Yakovenko has all the necessary vocal resources. The Yurlov Russian Choir sings very well, as they did in The Bells but here they’re balanced rather more satisfactorily; indeed, this is the best recorded sound on the album. Svetlanov leads another fine and committed performance.
I’m less keen on the Vocalise. This piece has been orchestrated by several hands over the years besides the composer himself. Here the orchestration is by one V Klin. The recording isn’t desperately good; the violin tone has some edge to it and the oboes sound rather acidic. Unfortunately Svetlanov, so sure-footed elsewhere, takes the piece rather too slowly for my taste. He makes something of a meal of it and seems to want to over-inflate the music. Still, this is the only performance on the disc about which I have any reservations.
Alto provide English translations for both of the sung works, which is a great help and James Murray’s notes are very useful.
I shall continue to prize Svetlanov’s 2002 live recording of The Bells; it really is rather special. However, the performance here is very good, as is the account of Spring. Having heard the album it would be perverse to do anything other than to echo Rob Barnett’s verdict. This is indeed a compellingly attractive purchase.