Rachmaninov: The Bells, Symphonic Dances - Bychkov
Rachmaninov: The Bells Op. 35, Symphonic Dances Op. 45
Lege Artis Chamber Choir
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)
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Review by John Miller - August 7, 2007
This is one of the finest SACDs to have come my way so far. Two of Rachmaninov's most central works, performed con amore by an excellent team, recorded in remarkable demonstration quality sound.
Rachmaninov, after reading Edgar Allen Poe's poem of the same name, decided to make it into a choral symphony in 4 movements. He used an "interpretation" of Poe by the Russian Symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont, and composed most of it in a single afternoon in Rome, where he was inspired by the bells of St Peter's. Since childhood, he had been fascinated by the chiming bells of local Orthodox churches and how they celebrated birth, marriage and death, so Poe's allegory for four such stages in life struck a deep chord, and he considered this his best work. Unfortunately, the new Bychkov disc is not provided with any texts, but the Ashkenazy (Rachmaninov: The Bells etc - Czech Philharmonic/Ashkenazy) supplies the Balmont in Japanese and Cyrillic with the English on a folded insert. It is worthwhile seeking out and reading both the Poe original and the Balmont versions before listening, and for those interested in such matters, a comparison of the sources in the context of a choral setting can be found at http://home.earthlink.net/~akuster/music/rachmaninoff/kolokola.htm.
In comparisons between the SACD Askenazy, his earlier CD version with the Concertgebouw and the new Bychkov, I made pages of notes, but coming back to the Bychkov each time was like having a veil lifted, both in performance and most notably in recording quality. The members of the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln play like angels for Bychkov, giving both the Prague orchestra and the Concertgebouw itself more than a run for their money; the all-important percussion department in particular deserving special praise. The resident WDR Rundfunk chorus are combined with the Lege Artis Chamber Choir and produce a rich sound which varies in tone colour with the demands of the score, and is certainly capable of cutting through the massive orchestra to deliver thrilling climaxes. They are never lost in the orchestra, as often in the Prague Ashkenazy.
The Hänssler sleeve note tells us that German audiences have for years dismissed The Bells and some other Rachmaninov works as mere kitch, so the assembled forces are united in their aim to push this impression away and show them The Light!
Bychlov's Russian soloists also account for themselves splendidly. In the 'Silver Sleigh Bells', tenor Evgeny Akimov starts with a slightly wide Slavic vibrato but rapidly warms up to join in the joyful innocence of this portrait of life's beginnings; there is a real feeling of expectancy. Like the other soloists, he is forward enough to ride the orchestral textures but still remain in a coherent concert hall picture. Bychkov's approach is touchingly wide-eyed and playful, with so many orchestral details coming through from this fabulous score, which Rachmaninov annotated obsessively with detailed performance instructions, which the Maestro has been at pains to implement.
'The Golden Wedding Bells' is kept moving; at the start there is gloriously deep, soft tone from all the string departments, so clearly denoted in their seating plan across the stage, then we hear the orchestra's rendition of deep bells, recalling those in Boris Godunov. Bychkov gradually builds the tender warmth of the love music in this long orchestral introduction, taking more time than Askenazy to let the music breathe and flow. Then the tubular bells introduce the virile male chorus, releasing soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya's voice to soar aloft, riding the great orchestral climax. She has a less operatic voice than Ashkenazy's Prague soprano, who tends to develop a hard edge under pressure. Pavlovskaya is very passionate, with gleaming tone in climaxes, but also hushed and tender in intimate music.
'Harsh-toned brass bells' is a fast movement of epic cast, dominated by the chorus, and portrays the adversities of life. It starts brightly, recalling the first movement, then rushes into a dissonant crisis. Bychkov makes this a truly exciting ride, revealing the kalaidoscopic sequences of moods, ramping up seething climaxes and precipitously plunging into desperation. There is superb agility from the woodwind in this movement, and the recording allows us easily to hear the bass clarinet and double bassoon with their frequent pungent contributions. A wild ride, hurtling towards a final crash which makes the neck hairs bristle.
'The Iron Funeral Bells Tolling'. Bychkov has had the last movement in his sights from the start. It is burdened with loss and melancholy, tinged with irony and infinite regret and he clearly views it as the emotional heart of the work; it anticipates the bitterest, most angst-filled moods of Shostakovich. And baritone Vladimir Vaneev is our protagonist; dark-toned, magisterial and heart-broken, pouring out his grief over a constant plodding rhythm. Here we meet face to face with the horror-filled darkness at the heart of so much of Poe's work. But by the end, there is a miraculous coda: lyrical touches of hope and redemption take over, with the violins singing a lullaby-like rocking melody reaching a final glowing cathartic major chord.
In this reading, Bychkov and his team have notably greater dramatic impetus and sharper depiction of tension/relaxation than Ashkenazy, fine though his accounts are. I was also made aware of Rachmaninov's Russian collegues Borodin, Glinka, Rimsky and Mussorgsky hovering over his shoulders, and their shades are with Bychkov too. This interpretation also made me think that Rachmaninov could have made a superb film music composer, had he made an alliance with a visual genius like Eisenstein, as did Prokofiev.
I have little space remaining to detail the rendering of the Symphonic Dances. They too are given a fabulous performance by the orchestra with the same vivid characterisations, dynamics and colouristics as in The Bells. Bychkov certainly is better than de Waart and arguably better than Janssons (I have been unable to hear the Jurowski).
Without a doubt, the recording itself is the finest of the group. The Hänssler engineers have tamed the Kölner Philharmonie to give one of the most staggeringly realistic portrayals of a large orchestra with chorus that I have ever heard. It is in full DSD 5.0, with plenty of deep bass (and a top-class bass drum to rattle your sub-woofer). Cymbals hiss, triangles glitter and even in the biggest climaxes, which run into congestion on many other recordings, the sound is fully-detailed and effortless. I can't emphasise how much the recording quality enhances the electric performance these musicians give. This is something special, and it will almost certainly be my SACD of 2007.
Coming down to earth, I have a niggling but important note for the producers. The gaps between movements in each of the works are quite short, which is not too much of a problem, but the time gap between the last movement of The Bells and the Symphonic Dances is ridiculously short. After such an emotionally draining movement, one needs quite a few seconds to recover without having to grab for the remote to prevent the first notes of the Dances intruding into one's reverie! And again, please could we always have the text for vocal works?
Copyright © 2007 John Miller and HRAudio.net
Review by Graham Williams - September 3, 2007
Semyon Bychkov has been chief conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchester in Köln since the 1997/98 season. This partnership has already yielded some very impressive recordings, and the Rachmaninov programme on this SACD is probably the best so far.
‘The Bells’, described as a choral symphony, is a setting for large chorus, orchestra and three soloists of Edgar Alan Poe’s poem in a very free Russian translation and adaptation by the Russian symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont. Rachmaninov completed the piece in 1913, and believed it to be the finest of all his works.
It falls into four movements each of which use the metaphor of different bells – silver sleigh bells, golden wedding bells, piercing alarm bells and iron funeral bells - to depict various stages of human existence from birth to death.
To capture such a huge piece successfully and realistically in a recording is not easy, but the WDR engineers, working within the splendid acoustic of the Köln Philharmonie, have succeeded triumphantly here. The opening orchestral passage immediately reveals a warmth, richness and clarity to the sound that is matched with visceral excitement when the chorus enter with their shout of ‘Hear!’
The tenor in this short first movement is Evgeny Akimov, who sounds authentically Slavic and projects his words with conviction. The recording balances him in a natural way in front of the orchestra and chorus.
In the second movement Bychkov moulds the music with just the right degree of flexibility allowing appreciation of the lush, but never cloying, string playing of his orchestra. The sensitivity of the singing by the wonderful chorus is not quite matched by that of Tatiana Pavlovskaya who, at times, forces her tone too much and thus fails to convey the required tenderness implicit in the text.
Bychkov unleashes a terrifying performance of the scherzo, full of dramatic bite. The chorus project clearly, even through the torrent of percussion and brass, and the raging build up of the movement towards the final crash, during which Rachmaninov introduces his favourite ‘Dies Irae’ motive, is overwhelming.
The final gloomy ‘Lento lugubre’ is most moving with particularly fine playing from the cor anglais and solo horn. I did not care for the bellowing of the baritone soloist Vladimir Vaneyev on his first entry, but he improves throughout the movement and the marvellous way Bychkov handles the wonderful consoling ending to the work (from 9’33” onwards) disarms any further criticism.
Bychkov’s performance of the Symphonic Dances is equally impressive aided by a recording of terrific impact and dynamic range. His tempo for the first part is quite relaxed, obeying Rachmaninov’s marking of ‘non allegro’ and giving the orchestra room, once again, to show its stirling qualities. This too applies to the spectral waltz where Bychkov’s subtle use of rubato and control of dynamics is particularly engaging. The final section, played with tremendous fire, is where Bychkov scores over the competition, and this, combined with state-of- the-art sound, ensures that his is undoubtedly a version of the Symphonic Dances to own.
I do have a soft spot for Edo de Waart’s recording on Exton where, in a slightly drier studio acoustic, timpani and bass drum are even cleaner and more incisive than on this version, and the final tam-tam stroke is allowed to die away for longer. It is, however, let down by a disappointingly underpowered finale.
The 5.0 surround sound layer gives a sumptuous impression of the Köln Philharmonie (does any concert hall in the world have more comfortable seats, I wonder?) with the rear channels providing excellent ambient information. No texts are provided nor information about the recording system used, but DSD is stated on the booklet cover.
I hope that Profil in collaboration with WDR will issue many more SACDs from this source.
Copyright © 2007 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net