Rachmaninov: The Bells; Symphonic Dances

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: ADD Reissue,Melodiya
ALBUM TITLE: Rachmaninov
WORKS: The Bells; Symphonic Dances
PERFORMER: Melodiya MEL CD 10 00840 (dist. Coda) ADD Reissue (1963)
CATALOGUE NO: MEL CD 10 00840 (dist. Coda) ADD Reissue (1963)
A welcome return to the catalogue for this classic recording, whose appearance on EMI in the 1960s revived interest in what had become, in Britain at least, a practically forgotten work. This freely Russified setting of Poe’s poems – describing the bells ringing for youth, marriage and death – was too full-bloodedly Romantic for the reigning modernists. Kondrashin’s dashing reading revealed it as a quintessentially Russian choral masterpiece – mercurial, exciting, sombrely moving. Other recordings followed swiftly, but Kondrashin, despite a rather raw recording, apparently improved here, still carries an amazing charge. The orchestral playing is vivid, and the soloists, if less than ideally lyrical – the soprano in the second movement especially – convey the imagery of the verses with real immediacy; so much so it’s a shame no text or translation is included. Above all the chorus sings with magnificent fervour.

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The Symphonic Dances again are absolutely bursting with energy, even if one does sometimes wish for a less propulsive, more lyrical reading. In the only similar coupling, Polyansky delivers this but makes The Bells less exceptional, as do Pletnev, Kitaenko, Järvi and others; only Anissimov on Naxos and Robert Shaw’s sluggish English-language version need be seriously avoided. But while Previn (on EMI) and Ashkenazy (on Decca) deliver splendid performances and generally easier on the ear, neither grip you as immediately as Kondrashin. Michael Scott Rohan