Rachmaninov: The Bells (CD review)

Also, Symphonic Dances. Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic. Warner Classics 50999 9 84519 2 0.

The first and presumably main attraction here is Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninov’s (1873-1943) The Bells, a choral symphony the composer wrote in 1913, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s poem of the same name. In Poe’s poem the poet was experimenting with sound, using onomatopoeia, the imitation of sounds of real life through the sounds of words. Thus, if you read an onomatopoetic poem like “The Bells” aloud, you would be able to hear the sounds of various bells: sleigh bells, wedding bells, alarm bells, and mournful death knells. Accordingly, that’s the way Rachmaninov set up his symphony--in four movements, with a choir to sing the words along with the orchestra. It became one of the composer’s favorite pieces. To me, however, it seems rather to defeat Poe’s purpose to do the work orchestrally; I mean, you can have real bells with an orchestra. But I suppose that’s beside the point. It’s fascinating music, and Sir Simon Rattle has a delightful time with it.

Rattle also has the advantage over most other conductors of this work in that he has the magnificent Berlin Philharmonic at his disposal. The ensemble sounds gorgeous, as always, leaving no doubt in a listener’s mind that it’s one of the world’s great orchestras.

Anyway, like Poe's poem, the music of Rachmaninov’s The Bells starts out lightly and cheerfully with the sleigh bells ("The Silver Sleigh Bells") of youth and works its way through life gradually to the dark, forbidding, yet ultimately comforting bells of death ("The Mournful Iron Bells"). Rattle handles each segment of what Poe called "tintinnabulation" gracefully, tunefully, and colorfully. This is one of Rachmaninov's most expressive pieces of the music, perhaps why he liked it so much himself, and Rattle's way with it is playful when necessary, gentle, exciting, and then menacing, sorrowful, and peacefully uplifting at the end. Rattle never goes out his way to emphasize the Dies irae (“Day of Wrath” or Judgment Day) motif that so often insinuates itself into Rachmaninov's music, nor does he disguise it. With Rattle it simply exists as an integral part of the music. Overall, this is one of the best performances of The Bells I've heard, one of the most thoughtful and subtle, with no undue sensationalizing.

Insofar as concerns the coupling, it’s Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, which the composer wrote late in life (premiering the music in 1941, just a year or two before his death). Initially, he intended the Dances as a part of a ballet project that fell through. The three dances in the suite have been in the repertoire ever since, and the public probably knows them as well as they know anything the composer wrote.

Among previously available recordings, I’ve always liked Andre Previn’s account with the London Symphony on EMI, which has long stood the test of time; Eiji Oue’s rendering with the Minnesota Orchestra on Reference Recordings, which is without a doubt the best recorded version you’ll find; and Vasily Petrenko’s more-recent realization with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic for its sheer energy. While it probably isn’t the best idea to compare different interpretations to one another because each one will have its fair share of valid interpretive points, I can’t help enjoying some recordings more than others. In this case, I can’t say I liked Rattle’s version better than my previous favorites. Let me explain.

With Rattle and the Symphonic Dances we have a different story from The Bells. Rattle is one of the most civilized conductors in all of music, and he seems to be getting more understated as he gets older. I'm one of those guys who actually liked Rattle's work more with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra back in the Eighties and Nineties than with the Berlin Philharmonic, despite the Berliners being the richer, more-opulent ensemble. Rattle seemed to me more spontaneous back then, more youthfully energetic and exuberant. Which is what I sense lacking in these Symphonic Dances. They sound too civilized.

Rattle's approach to the Dances seems too cultured, too refined to me. There is neither the imagination Previn injected into them nor the sheer adrenaline rush Petrenko provided. What's more, Warner Classics didn't provide them the kind of all-out sonic splendor that we hear from Reference Recordings. So what we have from Rattle is an elegant set of Symphonic Dances that doesn't quite get the blood to pounding the way other conductors have done. Still, it's a finely polished performance and one that may well appeal to listeners seeking such an interpretation. Certainly, Rattle makes the most of the sinuously lyrical second movement, has a pleasingly relaxed manner with the alto solo and waltz tunes, and again never flaunts the Dies irae ostentatiously in the final dance.

There is no one and only "right" way to deal with any score, after all, and Rattle's graceful, intellectual rendition of the Symphonic Dances makes a welcome addition to the catalogue, whether I happen to love it or not.

As is their usual practice with most Simon Rattle Berlin recordings, Warner Classics (formerly EMI) made it during live concerts, these from 2010 and 2012. While the sound of these live affairs is never bad, it can’t quite match in naturalness what the engineers can do without an audience. The producer in this case was Christoph Franke and the engineer Rene Moeller, and they do their best with an audience present, and the sound they obtain doesn't appear as close as it sometimes can be in such affairs. There's a wide stereo spread, although orchestral depth suffers a tad, and vocals can be bright, sometimes piercing, especially in massed voices. Lows appear reasonably well extended, particularly in bass drum and organ passages; the midrange is a little too warm and soft for my taste; but treble notes glisten believably. Oddly, too, there were times when I thought the engineers might have intentionally clamped down on the dynamics too much, restricting the range a bit more than absolutely necessary. Or so it sounded to me.

Most important to the sonics, there is little or no sense of the audience's presence in the recording, which I count as a good thing. There is no obvious breathing or coughing, shuffling of feet, or handling of programs from the audience. And even better, there is no burst of applause at the end of each number to distract one from the listening experience. I attend live symphonic concerts two or three times a month and enjoy them immensely, but when I'm home I recognize it's a different occasion; I want the sound to emulate that of a real concert hall all right, yet without the intrusive noises of people around me. While this latest recording from Simon Rattle does not match the best audio reproduction I've heard from the Berlin Philharmonic, for a live recording it sounds OK.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa