Rachmaninov: The Bells; Symphonic Dances
As far as the works are concerned, any CD that features both Rachmaninov’s ‘choral symphony’ and orchestral swansong is going to be my desert island disc. Kirill Kondrashin’s Melodiya-era performances, brilliant and garishly recorded, were twinned as such. Now, in finest sound, we’ve got Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in what may be their best disc since an equally surprising, top-notch complete Tchaikovsky Nutcracker. It’s also their first on the Warner label; I miss the EMI logo, and I doubt whether under that aegis the cover artwork would have been so undistinguished. Never mind; the performances are the thing, and this Bells may be unsurpassable.
It starts with bright-eyed briskness, the artful mix giving us a spotlight on vital celesta and woodwind throughout. The three soloists are superb, even if Dmytro Popov is a more heroic tenor than usual and Luba Orgoná≥ová plays firm matriarch at the wedding rather than young bride. Mikhail Petrenko’s bass is another quality voice, prefaced and mirrored by the most human cor anglais solo I’ve ever heard. The professional Berlin chorus is one notch short of authentic Russianness but helps with the clarity, rather than the usual noise, of the ‘Alarum Bells’ movement.
Woodwind excel again in the wonderful account of Symphonic Dances; only Rattle’s heavier than usual opening stomp, the unmarked ritardando he makes into the transfigured quotation from the First Symphony and the slightly over-slow pain at the heart of the finale set this, for me, a notch below the recordings by Vasily Petrenko and Neeme Järvi. But it’s still a remarkable achievement.