Rachmaninov: The Bells; Symphonic Dances

COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: Profil
ALBUM TITLE: Rachmaninov
WORKS: The Bells; Symphonic Dances
PERFORMER: Tatiana Pavlovskaya (soprano), Evgeny Akimov (tenor), Vladimir Vaneev (baritone); WDR Radio Choir, Cologne; Lege Artis Chamber Choir; WDR SO, Cologne/Semyon Bychkov
CATALOGUE NO: PH 07028 (CD/SACD hybrid)
There have been several recordings of this extraordinary choral work in recent years, but many seem to have slid out of the catalogue equally quickly. This one’s coupling puts it in direct competition with the Kondrashin version reissued last year, rough-edged but wonderfully vigorous and idiomatic, as full-flavoured as a platter of zakouski (diplomatic grade). But while Kondrashin suffers from an acidulous Soviet-era recording, Bychkov boasts the added range and dimensions of live SACD.

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Bychkov is also pretty good at evoking the mercurial and eventually manic spirits of this very free rewriting of Poe’s wild poem, from childhood sleighbells through wedding bells and stormy adult peals to grim funeral tolling; the chorus sings passionately, the orchestra throws itself into Rachmaninov’s multi-hued, constantly changing soundworld with gusto. In the concert hall this would be overwhelming. On disc, though, you sense a lack of unity and control which makes all the bustle slightly fatiguing, and the chorus aren’t Slavic enough in their enunciation. Ashkenazy, though less energetic, balances it all better, as does the rather sleek Mikhail Pletnev.

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And while SACD at its best can clarify and expand the layers of dense choral textures admirably, that doesn’t really happen here; as with Bychkov’s Elektra last year things sound homogenised, with the soloists unnaturally close, especially Evgeny Akimov. The Symphonic Dances,/i> fare better, but again Kondrashin scores. There’s still no ideal Bells,/i>, but Kondrashin remains my personal preference, along with Previn, Neeme Järvi and Ashkenazy – presently only in a boxed set. Michael Scott Rohan