Rachmaninov: The Bells; Symphonic Dances; Symphony No. 2

COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: Arthaus
ALBUM TITLE: Rachmaninov
WORKS: The Bells; Symphonic Dances; Symphony No. 2
PERFORMER: WDR SO Köln/Semyon Bychkov
CATALOGUE NO: Arthaus DVD 101 439 (NTSC system; PCM stereo; 16:9 picture ratio)
Rachmaninov’s two masterpieces around which Enrique Sánchez Lansch’s documentaries circle are about the different times of life, the sense of the past in the present; and so it is, in a way, apt to hear what the earnest players of the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Cologne, think of the subject. The idea takes some getting used to, but I was occasionally moved at moments such as the climactic sequence unfolding against the background of the earlier work’s ‘Funeral bells’ movement, in which the vivacious clarinettist tells us how she had to deal with the death of her mother two weeks before she was due to give birth. Semyon Bychkov also speaks, in highly articulate English, of Rachmaninov’s prophetic instability, exile and nostalgia, and of his own association with the daughters of the composer’s great friend the pianist Alexander Ziloti when he arrived in New York in 1975.The performances run complete, though with these punctuations; instead of a live performance, we simply get the whole final‑rehearsal sequence again, without the commentaries. Hans Hadulla’s black-fringed film of the Second Symphony adds more of a sense of occasion. Bychkov’s performances dig as deep as he says he wants them to, studded with textural detail and a pleasing mobility from this immensely likeable orchestra. A slight oddity of movement in the Symphonic Dances’ central waltz is more than redeemed by the heartfelt saxophone-led song at the heart of the first dance and the brilliant articulation of the heaven-and-hell finale.

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