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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Bells, Op.35 [39:59]
Sergei TANEYEV (1856-1915)
John of Damascus, Op.1 [24:19]
Anna Samuil (Soprano), Dmitri Popov (tenor), Vladislav Sulimsky (baritone)
Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno
Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne/Dmitri Kitajenko
rec. 2018, Cologne Philharmonic Concert Hall, Germany
OEHMS OC470 [64:44]

Dmitri Kitajenko recorded The Bells for Chandos in 1990 with the Danish National Symphony choir and orchestra. Returning to it the best part of 30 years later, this time with the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne, with whom he has recently recorded all the Rachmaninov symphonies, and with the Czech Philharmonic Choir, the surprising thing is how little his interpretation has changed, In terms of tempi, dynamic shading, pacing of climaxes and shaping of Rachmaninov’s rich melodic palette, the two performances are remarkably similar. What is different is the sound. While the earlier recording luxuriated in Chandos’s rich, warm and resonant sound, Oehms have come up with something altogether more clinical. We hear far more of the orchestral detail, while Rachmaninov’s masterly scoring is brought into impressively sharp focus. Perhaps at times the orchestra is a little too forcefully focused; there is a moment around 5:29 of the first movement when the Cologne trombones verge on the coarse, and the German string players have none of the rich vibrancy of their Danish predecessors, which takes away some of the luminous beauty of the opening of the second movement. But there is also some exquisite woodwind playing here, and Kitajenko achieves a fine orchestral balance, even if the engineers have kept the choir rather too far in the background.

Dmitri Popov has great presence in the opening movement, although he keeps things on a very tight rein, unlike Kurt Westi, the tenor on the 1990 recording, who seized every opportunity for dramatic operatic posturing. For her part Anna Samuil wallows luxuriatingly in the second movement’s suggestions of ecstasy and rapture. Vladislav Sulimsky, with the aid of a pricelessly sinuous cor anglais, is the most vividly evocative of the soloists, with a voice of commanding presence, full of darkness and simmering anger.

The booklet notes urge us not to confuse Sergei Taneyev “with his fellow composer and distant cousin Aleksandr Taneyev”, but the confusion starts with Oehms itself, who emblazon the disc’s cover with wholly incorrect and misleading dates for Taneyev. To untangle any confusion, the Cantata for mixed choir and orchestra on a libretto by Tolstoy - again, to quote from the booklet, “the Russian poet Aleksey K Tolstoy (1817-1875); again not to be confused with Aleksey N. Tolstoy (1883-1945)” - concerning the life of John of Damascus, was the first published work of the same Taneyev who was Rachmaninov’s composition teacher, and was composed in 1884 when Taneyev was 28, not three years after his death (as is implied by the booklet). Enough of confusion, luckily for us Dmitri Kitajenko is a much more clear-sighted and straightforward interpreter of this music than Oehms is of its presentation, and the performance of Taneyev’s cantata has a wonderfully crystalline quality.

The prayerful, hymn-like opening of John of Damascus has a suitably sombre, processional feel to it, as Kitajenko allows the music to unfold naturally. The contrapuntal detail of the orchestral introduction is revealed with great clarity, and as the Czech Philharmonic Choir emerges, extending and expanding the texture, the sense of travelling along a path from “darkness and fear and redemption at the Last Judgement” (as the booklet notes rather poetically put it) is particularly strong. In the first movement, Kitajenko balances convincngly the somewhat contradictory ideas in Taneyev’s writing, in which an intention to evoke the Baroque is dangerously at odds with a musical language which is firmly rooted in late Romanticism. But he also conveys a superb over-arching view of the work as a whole, turning the very brief, a capella second movement, into a moment of ethereal calm, and easing the dramatic finale into the picture to great effect. This is not one of the greatest works in the Russian choral lexicon, with a final fugue which even in the hands of a conductor so versed in the idiom as Kitajenko, sounds horribly contrived. But this is as good a performance as one could expect. The only real downside is the absence of an English translation of the text (which, in the booklet, is presented only in transliterated Russian and German).

Marc Rochester



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