The Bells, Op.35
Alexander Nevsky – Cantata, Op.78
Elena Prokina (soprano), Daniil Shtoda (tenor) & Sergei Leiferkus (baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Evgeny Svetlanov [Rachmaninov]
Alfreda Hodgson (mezzo-soprano)
The Bells recorded 19 April 2002 in Barbican Hall, London; Alexander Nevsky recorded 30 January 1988 in Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by: Tully Potter
Reviewed: June 2012
CD No: ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5069
Duration: 79 minutes
The great Russian conductor Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002) began and ended his career with one of his favourite works, Rachmaninov’s choral symphony The Bells. He chose it for his final exam at the Moscow Conservatory and the performance enshrined on this ICA issue was his very last – of it and of all – given just two weeks before his death. Knowing Svetlanov’s closeness to this composer’s music, I expect he was fully aware that The Bells was also the final piece Rachmaninov himself conducted. Svetlanov was not only an eminent Rachmaninov conductor, he was also a magnificent Rachmaninov pianist: everyone should hear his recordings of the Elegiac Trio (Opus 9, with Kogan and Luzanov) and the Cello Sonata (with Luzanov), and his solo recordings are also masterly. The same can be said of his records of music by Rachmaninov’s friend Medtner.
The idea for The Bells came to the composer from an anonymous letter enclosing the text of Konstantin Balmont’s Russian translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem (only after Rachmaninov’s death was it revealed that the sender was a young lady cellist called Maria Danilova). Rachmaninov, who had already been considering a new symphony, sketched The Bells in 1913 in Rome, in Modest Tchaikovsky’s old apartment which his composer-brother had sometimes used as a retreat. To work at the same table as his hero was an added stimulus. “All my life I have taken pleasure in the differing moods and music of gladly chiming and mournfully tolling bells”, Rachmaninov wrote in his memoirs. He conducted the first performance on 30 November, in one of Siloti’s Moscow concerts. Each of the soloists gets a movement, backed each time by the chorus: the tenor appears in the first, dealing with silver sleigh bells of birth and youth, with a chilly foreshadowing of the end of life; the soprano sings of mellow golden wedding bells; the chorus has the scherzo to itself, warning of brazen alarum bells; and the baritone sings of the iron bells of death.
Evgeny Svetlanov’s conducting of The Bells was his final musical act and is a serious contender for everyone’s collection. The BBC captured amazing sound. The tenor soloist is excellent; the soprano has one of those vibrant Russian voices, but should be within anyone’s tolerance; and Sergei Leiferkus is his usual reliable self. All three put over their parts with full conviction. The BBC Symphony Chorus is superb, not really Russian-sounding – which may be a plus for some listeners – but handling the text well and getting through the revised scherzo without a fluff. The orchestral playing is equally fine, the woodwinds deserving special praise. Svetlanov was mortally ill but you would never know it. He gives one of the most persuasive interpretations I have ever heard of The Bells, and it all gains from the continuity and spontaneity of a concert performance. The audience is blessedly quiet during the music, too. If Svetlanov had to die so soon afterwards, he went out on a notable high, doing his utmost for a work that both he and the composer loved.
The sound is also excellent in Alexander Nevsky, though very different, reflecting the Royal Festival Hall’s equally problematic acoustic – another triumph for the BBC engineers. This Cantata was worked up by Prokofiev from his music for Eisenstein’s 1938 film; and it represents his finest piece of propaganda for the Soviet Union. Rather than use specific traditional melodies or folk-tunes, he composed in the spirit of such music, producing a very successful pastiche of Mussorgsky. No wonder it has always been one of his most popular works. The only snag, for anyone who likes the ‘normal’ Prokofiev, is that most of it does not sound like him at all – it gets most like him in the famous ‘Battle on the Ice’. Svetlanov’s performance is suitably noisy and grandiloquent, with both chorus and orchestra entering into the spirit of the score. Although Alfreda Hodgson does not sound very Russian – the composer was clearly thinking of a Nadezhda Obukhova kind of voice – she delivers her solo eloquently, making the most of the one relatively still point in the work.
The sound of both recordings has been very well re-mastered by Paul Baily but the presentation leaves something to be desired. Although there are seven pages advertising other ICA products, the all-important texts are not included. The original producers and engineers are not named, nor are the chorus masters, and Hodgson, one of the last of that dying breed, the English contralto, is described as a mezzo-soprano (which, to be fair, she is elsewhere too). Nevertheless, this release does full honours to Evgeny Svetlanov.