RACHMANINOV: The Bells, Op. 35; Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 – Luba Orgonasova, sop./ Dmytro Popov, tenor/ Mikhail Petrenko, bass/ Radio-Choir Berlin/ Berlin Philharmonic Orch./ Sir Simon Rattle – Warner Classics 9 84519 2, 71:37 (8/26/13) ****:“The love of bells is inherent in every Russian. . .if I have been at all successful in making the bells vibrate with human emotion in my works, it is largely due to the fact that most of my life was lived amid the vibrations of the bells of Moscow.” —Sergei Rachmaninov
Rachmaninov conceived his cantata after Edgar Allan Poe (via Konstantin Balmont) in Rome, 1913, the four parts’ serving as an allegory of the “seasons,” or the progression of vivacious life to ineluctable death. Besides any number of rhythmic tropes common to the Rachmaninov oeuvre, the Dies Irae once more invades our sense of mortality. Rachmaninov dedicated the piece to Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. The American debut occurred courtesy of Leopold Stokowski, in Philadelphia, 1920. When the work premiered in Moscow, in March 1931, Albert Coates led the performance.
Sir Simon Rattle and his massive forces recorded The Bells 8-11 November 2012 at the Philharmonie, Berlin. In the luxurious second stanza, “The Mellow Wedding Bells,” Balmont remains faithful to Poe, but Rachmaninov introduces by degrees the sequence Dies Irae and invokes many of the harmonies he had utilized in The Isle of the Dead. The third movement – Presto: “The Loud Alarum Bells – serves as a grim scherzo, particularly as the cause for alarms lies in Dantesque fire, what Balmont calls “a ruthless conflagration,” and the chorus must pit itself against the Dies Irae intoned by an inflamed orchestra. Bass-baritone Petrenko assumes the grotesquely somber responsibility of the lines for the Lento lugubre – “The Mournful Iron Bells” – last movement, a designation close in spirit to Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. The knell of death and burial moves in a martial dirge until a possible transfiguration in the musical equivalent of a lux aeterna. Whatever transfiguration has been achieved lies in the vision of Death as a serene and not horrific presence. All of these musical effects have been rendered by the expert sound mixing of Rene Moeller for a stunning clarity of presentation.
The 1940 Symphonic Dances (4-5 November 2010) derive from a live concert. The music itself means to celebrate simultaneously Russian dance and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Rachmaninov sought new color effects, employing the alto saxophone and the piano for the Non allegro first movement. In the course of this first dance, Rachmaninov manages to allude to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’or and his own First Symphony, Op. 13. Rattle kneads the central melody with loving hands. The BPO’s English horn does the honors in the Tempo di valse, a grudging, nostalgic, eerily shadowy waltz whose diviso strings in acerbic harmony refuse to allow any “purity” to the remembrance of times past. Rattle’s waltz tempo remains quite slow, and I must prefer that set by my favorite Sir Eugene Goossens.
Commentators often see this movement as paying homage to the Valse melancolique from Tchaikovsky’s Third Suite in G, Op. 56. For his “last dance,” Rachmaninov pits rather a Manichean struggle between his nemesis of Death in the Dies Irae and the hopeful doxology of Russian Orthodox chant, particularly one of his own settings – Blogosloven Yesi, Gospodi – for the Vespers, Op. 37. The music moves from tragedy to triumph, the music eventually accelerating and mocking aspects of Saint-Saens’ Danse macabre. Rattle and the BPO completely exploit the sonic potency of this piece to make Rachmaninov’s “last will and testament” a resounding experience.
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