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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Bells, Op. 35 (1913) [39.07]
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940) [35.12]
Tatiana Pavlovskaya (soprano); Oleg Dolgov (tenor); Alexey Markov (baritone)
Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 14/15 January 2016 (Op. 35); 26/27 January 2017 (Op. 45) Herkulessaal, Munich
Russian texts (transliterated) and English & German translations included
BR KLASSIK 900154 [74.19]

This disc presents an appetising proposition for lovers of Rachmaninov’s music, containing as it does, two of his finest works.

In The Bells Rachmaninov set a poem by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) in a free Russian translation by Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942). The four sections of the poem – and Rachmaninov’s four movements – tell of ‘The Silver Sleigh Bells’, ‘The Golden Wedding Bells’, ‘The Loud Alarum Bells’ and finally ‘The Mournful Iron Bells’. Each, of course, is a commentary on an aspect of the human condition.

Before I go any further I should comment on the recorded sound. The BR Klassik engineers have produced a very full-on, rather close sound. This, allied to the great power of the orchestra - and of the singers in The Bells - means that in both works the music has terrific impact. I’ll confess that when I first heard the Symphonic Dances I thought the sound was going to be too much of a good thing but I’ve grown more accustomed to it. However, if you like a bit more distance between you and the performers then this may not be the recording for you. As I usually do, I did my listening through loudspeakers but on this occasion, I did a brief amount of sampling through headphones and then I found the recording rather too close for comfort. Reverting to loudspeaker listening, the Vasily Petrenko recording of Symphonic Dances (review) and the incandescent Svetlanov recording of The Bells (review) both strike me as a more comfortable listening experience because neither recording is as closely balanced as the Jansons. Of course, the BR Klassik sound offers an immediacy of impact but it may be advisable to sample the Jansons recording on line prior to commitment, if you can.

The impact of the performance, especially as recorded, is palpable early on in The Bells. After the tenor has sung ‘Slyshysh’ (Listen) the choir responds and what a sound they make! Oleg Dolgov is well suited to the tenor role. He has a Slavic timbre though this isn’t excessive; more to the point, his ringing tone is crystal clear, as is his enunciation of the words. In the second movement the solo mantle passes to Tatiana Pavlovskaya. She offers an impassioned reading though purely as a matter of personal taste I find the vibrato quite pronounced. Poe’s words speak of the wedding bells but neither the text nor, especially, Rachmaninov’s setting of it presents us with a joyful peal of bells. Rather, the solemn music acts as a reminder that, as the Church of England’s marriage service says, matrimony is an estate not to be entered into lightly. Tatiana Pavlovskaya’s singing is certainly full of personality and she commands the stage. She’s supported by fervent singing and playing from the choir and orchestra respectively. Towards the end of the movement Pavlovskaya’s quiet singing is admirable.

The third movement, which is effectively the symphony’s scherzo, opens with a terrific attack from the choir, whose collective sound is very potent throughout the movement. The music – and the performance of it – convey a real sense of human misfortune. Both the choir and orchestra make a vivid impression. The final movement opens with a deeply melancholic cor anglais solo, here eloquently played. Baritone Alexey Markov is a big, brooding presence. I found his performance was properly commanding. The entire performance exudes tension and apprehension until the coda where, in an inspired move, Rachmaninov at last moves out of the minor key and into the major for an autumnal conclusion.

Jansons’ dramatic and powerfully projected performance is pretty impressive. It doesn’t shake my loyalty to the tremendous Svetlanov performance, though.

I think the performance of Symphonic Dances is the one in which the close recorded sound may be more of an issue. I don’t think I’ve ever heard those string chords and the percussion that one encounters a few seconds after the start sound quite so dark and weighty as they do here and I’m inclined to think that this isn’t just due to the work of the engineers; I think it’s also an interpretative decision by Jansons that the music should be as pronounced as it is. In one way it’s very impressive – the BRSO’s tonal strength is amazing - and it certainly gets the listener’s attention. However, Vasily Petrenko achieves the right degree of weight without being quite as pronounced as Jansons. Also, the RLPO seem to be a little more distant from us and that helps too. (The Petrenko recording was made under studio conditions, I’m pretty certain, in which case Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall would have been empty apart from the musicians and the recording team.). The wonderful, nostalgic saxophone tune (3:38) is expertly played and later when the strings take over the theme one can relish the lustrous and yearning playing of the Bavarians. When the quick music returns the orchestral sound is very full indeed.

To me the second movement evokes a ghostly ballroom. Jansons emphasises the melancholy mein of the music, though there were times when I wished for a slightly lighter tread. It seems to me that here Rachmaninov is conjuring up a vision of the Russian ballrooms of old; at times it’s as if we’re seeing the vision through a gauze curtain. It would be idle to deny the fantastic quality of the BRSO but maybe, as far as the microphones are concerned, just a fraction more distance would have lent greater enchantment. Jansons treats us to a dashing, virtuoso performance of the final movement and here I appreciated much more the vivid quality of the sound. The slow central episode is treated very expansively and here the seamless and rich legato playing of the Bavarian strings is a real boon. When the quick music returns (9:10) Jansons and his players build the excitement and tension more and more until they reach a truly exciting conclusion. The end is marked by thunderous crashes on the tam-tam, the last of which is left to decay naturally.

This, then, is a virtuoso performance of Rachmaninov’s last masterpiece though I think the engineers have made it even more of a full-on experience than it was in the Herkulessaal. I find much to admire in the performance but I remain loyal to the outstanding Vasily Petrenko recording, one of the finest things I’ve ever heard from him.

Personally, I’d recommend buying the Svetlanov and Petrenko discs individually and acquiring the two works separately. However, if you want these particular Rachmaninov scores coupled together – and that’s an attractive prospect – then Jansons is well worth considering

John Quinn

Previous review: Michael Cookson


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