The Bells, Op.35
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op.47
BBC Symphony Chorus
Sir Mark Elder
Reviewed by: David Truslove
Reviewed: 26 July, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall
Following its St Petersburg premiere in November 1913, The Bells had its first UK outing in Liverpool in March 1921 with Henry Wood at the helm. A review praised Wood’s “masterly handling of the complex scheme of effects”. No less masterly was Sir Mark Elder in this fine performance of Rachmaninov’s choral symphony.
Drawn from Edgar Allan Poe’s eponymous poem and freely translated into Russian by Konstantin Balmont, The Bells is a symphonic journey from birth to death in four movements. Under Elder’s measured direction, the first, ‘Silver Sleigh Bells’, unfolded in a suitably sprightly manner, its instrumental detail nicely transparent and the chorus resplendent. Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov rose above the singers with an easy authority, producing a thrilling high A flat near the close, his ardent promise of spring soon ultimately subdued, sobriety foreshadowing oblivion and anticipating the seriousness of ‘Mellow Wedding Bells’.
Soprano Mané Galoyan ravished the ear with sculpted phrasing, holding back to advantage in her climactic passage and responding to the text’s “tender dreams” with a depth of feeling mirrored in the ominous tones of the chorus. Poe’s evocation that is ‘Loud Alarum Bells’ (chorus and orchestra alone) felt too comfortable initially, its tempo just a little cautious and the chorus not quite injecting enough terror, demonic pleas sounding fractionally underpowered when not in unison.
The gilt-edged baritone of Andrei Kymach (winner of Cardiff Singer of the World in 2019) left a richly sonorous imprint on the concluding ‘Mournful Iron Bells’, Thomas Davey’s cor anglais providing solace within the orchestra’s sombre tread, its brooding melancholy yielding to a Hollywoodesque melody outlined with affection by the Hallé strings, capped off by the seldom heard ad lib. organ part. Altogether, an impressive performance, variously exhilarating, absorbing and superbly controlled, which kept this audience spellbound, applause reserved for the end.
A similar focused attention gripped the audience for a scrupulously prepared account of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, its four movements enjoying the luxury of uninterrupted progress, something rarely heard in London these days. There was nothing overly demonstrative about the first movement, yet plenty of tension accrued in the string canons played with restraint and cool precision. With the subsequent brutalising of its themes, the emotional temperature rose, malevolence largely kept under tight control yet still impactful. Rarely have I heard the coda quite so atmospheric.
A forthright manner initiated the Allegretto, giving way to sardonic nose-thumbing and superbly crafted trios. The serene detachment of the Largo was highly charged, with the Hallé woodwind principals bringing balm to the movement’s loneliness, quiet seething and, in this instance, a magical close. Thereafter, the Finale erupted from silence, Elder galvanising a propulsive, feverish traversal, neatly incorporating its mood swings and allowing brass and percussion fully their moments in the sun, its minor to major key transformation and obstinate string writing ending in a blaze of wilful defiance.
In summary, this was an evening of captivating performances.