Rachmaninoff: The Rock; The Bells

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Rachmaninoff
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: The Rock; The Bells
PERFORMER: Helen Field (soprano), Ivan Choupenitch (tenor), Oleg Melnikov (bass); RTE Philharmonic Choir, National SO of Ireland/Alexander Anissimov
CATALOGUE NO: 8.550805
Here are two honourable new recordings of Rachmaninoff’s masterly ‘choral symphony’, neither of them ringing as bright – or as black, since this is half-grim Edgar Allan Poe territory – as Svetlanov’s or Kondrashin’s Russian forces in the past. Pletnev has a group of trained voices to resound and howl, so it’s odd that he chooses the radical simplification of the choral part Rachmaninoff made in 1936 to help a Sheffield performance through the terrors of the ‘alarm bells’ movement. Anissimov, on the other hand, taxes the very underpowered men of his Irish chorus with the original. Yet despite Pletnev’s first-rate, word-conscious soloists – Larin launches the text in superb style – and his far more detailed if artificial recording, I warm more to the Naxos performance from the orchestral point of view, especially when Anissimov shapes the sensuous chromatic yearning of the ‘wedding bells’ so masterfully and sustains a more malleable tempo than Pletnev in the ultimate funeral dirge, with a very vocal cor anglais soloist to fill in the necessary atmosphere.

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In the absence of the most essential companion piece, the swansong Symphonic Dances, each conductor manages his chosen supporting-act well. Anissimov gives equal attention to tragic old age and dancing youth in the compelling drama of The Rock, while Taneyev’s John of Damascus – not quite the rarity it might have been with a Chandos recording already in the catalogue – makes a sober sequel on DG; nimble choral work in a vigorous fugue compensates for the distinctive vibrato of the Russian voices and the ladies’ occasionally suspect tuning. David Nice