Rachmaninov: The Bells; Three Russian Folk Songs; Spring

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COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: Revelation
WORKS: The Bells; Three Russian Folk Songs; Spring
PERFORMER: Natalia Mihailova (soprano), Igor Slutskovsky (tenor), Mikhail Lanskoy, Evgeny Kibkalo (baritone); Ministry of Culture State SO, State Republic Academic Cappella Chorus/Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, All-Union Radio Grand SO & Chorus/Alexander Gauk
Rachmaninov’s manic-depressive Russification of Edgar Allan Poe’s verses might have been tailor-made for Rozhdestvensky, whose histrionic talent squeezes every drop of juice from several luscious climaxes. If this (1991) recording had been made two decades or so ago, when the conductor’s focus was more assured and Moscow recording more reliable, however rough, then it might have stood a chance as an authentically raw native specimen. But there is daunting competition from Kondrashin’s hair-raising 1962 Melodiya performance, and here the choir, placed much too far behind blatant trumpets and over-miked soloists including a musicianly but overtaxed soprano, has no comparable chance of putting across tenderness and terror. Still, what macabre or sensuous details manage to come across are always fascinating (is there a precedent for a cello solo, rather than the entire section, towards the beginning of the ‘Golden Bells’ movement? If not, Rozhdestvensky has certainly employed it imaginatively).


The earlier performances, conducted by the reliable Alexander Gauk, are better balanced. The Three Russian Folk Songs of 1927 poignantly encapsulate the homesick composer of the American years; the impressionable cantata Spring is spiced up by baritone Evgeny Kibkalo’s unreservedly operatic central monologue. David Nice