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 Recording of the Week  Rachmaninov from Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker

A really exciting new disc this week from Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker, with two works by Sergei Rachmaninov: the Symphonic Dances and the choral piece, The Bells.

Sir Simon Rattle
Sir Simon Rattle

Written in 1913, The Bells is a setting for three soloists, chorus, and orchestra of Edgar Allan Poe's poem of the same name, freely translated into Russian by the Symbolist poet, Konstantin Balmont. I always think Rattle is at his interpretative best when he's conducting music that is full of interesting orchestral colours, and this is certainly the case here. Rachmaninov employs numerous imaginative touches of orchestration to depict the various bells, and the passages involving quicksilver glockenspiel and celeste in the opening Silver Sleigh Bells movement are especially strongly realised by Rattle and the Berlin players.

There's really fine choral singing on offer throughout: thrilling in the more dramatic moments of The Loud Alarum Bells, and beautifully expressive in the closing bars of The Mellow Wedding Bells (following on from a fantastic soprano solo by Luba Orgonášová). The very end of the piece, where the bass soloist (Mikhail Petrenko on top form) informs us that The Mournful Iron Bells are “spreading the news that all is peaceful in the grave”, is really rather moving, particularly when it includes an orchestral coda as exquisitely played as on this recording. The closing bars must rank as some of the most ravishing in Rachmaninov's output, and I don't think you could ask for more luxurious playing than we are treated to here.

Completed in 1940, the three-movement work entitled Symphonic Dances is Rachmaninov's last orchestral composition. It's fairly rare that a recording actually has me open-mouthed in astonishment, but that was definitely true as I was listening to this: I've had it on repeat for most of the weekend! Without doubt, my favourite bit of the piece is the passage about a minute from the end of the first movement, where everything slows down, and the string section plays a major-key version of a theme actually from the composer's First Symphony. With a twinkly accompaniment from flutes, glockenspiel, piano and harp, it's a magical moment, and for my money Rattle judges it to perfection. It's such a gorgeous melody, and the Berlin string section give it their all in terms of expression and beauty of sound.

What I like about Rattle's interpretation is the amount of space he allows, not only in the passage I've just talked about, which is reasonably slower than one normally hears, but also in the extended alto saxophone solo earlier in the movement. I can't remember having heard such a tender, lyrical performance of this solo before, and all of these factors add up to an absolutely stunning account of this movement.

Fortunately the other two movements keep up this exceptional standard: Rattle brings an extraordinary amount of melancholy to the husky, veiled waltz for strings in the second movement; it's a real Valse triste. The brass aren't given all that much to do in terms of solo moments, but they are impressively powerful in their muted exclamations at the opening of this same movement, which also has some virtuoso playing from principal flute and clarinet in their whirlwind solos. There's no shortage of excitement in the last movement either, with some great percussion playing (especially some pleasingly prominent tambourine and side drum, and the piece's final tam-tam stroke, left to ring on after the rest of the orchestra has finished, just as marked in the score).

So, as you may have noticed, I really liked this disc! With first-rate performances of two wonderful pieces, this is easily one of my favourite recordings of the year so far; thoroughly recommended!

Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances & The Bells

Luba Orgonášová (soprano), Dmytro Popov (tenor) & Mikhail Petrenko (bass), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC