RACHMANINOFF: The Bells, Op. 35; Spring, Op. 20; Three Russian Folksongs, Op. 41 – Walter Planté, tenor/ Marianna Christos, soprano/ Arnold Voketaitis, bass-baritone/ St. Louis Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/ Leonard Slatkin – Vox NX-3031CD (64:39) (12/1/23) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Recorded in October 1980, this album presents conductor Leonard Slatkin (b. 1944) and assembled forces in St. Louis in selected choral music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, the largest of which, his 1913 setting (designated “symphony” originally) of the poem “The Bells,” came to the composer by way of Konstantin Balmont, who had made a translation of Poe’s allegorical verses. In the Russian version of the text, Balmont dispenses with Poe’s repetitions, alliterations, and onomatopoeiac devices; instead, the emphasis becomes psychological, as the bells trace the processes of life and death. For the purpose of this performance, Slatkin uses an English rendering of Balmont by Fanny S. Copeland. The scale of the composition reflects upon its dedicatee, Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, once held in esteem as the most virtuosic ensemble in Europe.
In four movements, the “symphony” restricts each of the three soloists to sing solo with chorus, except in movement three, Presto, which provides a demonic scherzo, and the chorus and orchestra collaborate without a solo voice. The first movement, a celebration of the “Silver Sleigh Bells” of Winter, achieves, via tenor Planté and chorus, a sense of urgent, pantheistic bliss in the sheer variety of Life. The second movement, Lento, celebrates Golden bells, “The Mellow Wedding Bells” in nocturnal ebbs and flows. The scoring often hearkens back to Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead in color, the soprano Christos’ voice merging with individual strings, winds, and chorus. Hints of the ubiquitous Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass pervade the texture, which later, in movement four, become a dire forecast of universal doom. A series of clashing, percussive effects constitutes the Presto, the “Loud Alarum Bells” with their invocation of Miltonic, hellish Pandemonium. The scoring, rich in brass and battery, likely owes much to the influence of Berlioz. The last movement has taken Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony as its model, proffering a Lento lugubre to invoke “The Mournful Iron Bells” of imminent death. Bass-baritone Voketiatis inflects the dire poetry with a clear sense of apocalyptic anguish. Only Rachmaninoff’s gift for ennobled melody raises the moment to one of hope.
Rachmaninoff’s 1902 one-movement cantata for bass-baritone and chorus, Spring, derives its poetic appeal from Nikolai Nekrasov (1821-1878), who sees in the coming of Spring an allegorical melting of the human heart from icy vengeance to healing forbearance and renewal. A peasant woman confesses her infidelity to her husband, and the unforgiving winter winds urge him to retaliate in murder. Their isolation due to the frozen landscape only exacerbates his lust to punish the betrayer with his knife. But the sounds of the emergent thaw, “the green din,” in Nature touches his capacity to love, to bear, and to forgive. What the score lacks, according to orchestral master Rimsky-Korsakov, is any color reference to Spring itself. The performance proceeds in Russian, and the cumulative, sonic effects, courtesy of Elite Recordings, proves intensely vivid. The explosive cracking of Nature’s ice beckons forth another of Rachmaninoff’s melodic chorales, lyrically haunting in E major.
The Three Russian Folksongs (1926) have enthralled this reviewer ever since he first heard them led by Igor Bouketoff. Rachmaninoff had been in compositional dormancy from the advent of the Russian Revolution of 1917, but his association with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra reawakened his creative powers. The three songs each sound in a different texture: men’s bass voices, women’s alto voices, and then the two in concert. By now, Rachmaninoff’s sense of orchestral timbre had been honed to illuminate the texts most artfully. The plastic phraseology and selective use of dissonances add to the effect, always complemented by the urgent nostalgia of Rachmaninoff’s string lines. The first song, Moderato, tells of a wild duck couple which crosses a bridge, only to have the female frightened away by the sounds of a rushing stream, leaving the drake bereaved. In the second song, Largo, a young bride laments the departure of her husband at the behest of his father. The last song, Allegro moderato, enjoys the most mischievous color. “Powder and Paint” details the efforts of a flirtatious wife to remove all traces of her recent tryst. The delicacy of scoring – harps and percussion, the mixing of the voices in tandem with the woodwinds – all in dancing rhythms, produces a lasting, magical impression.