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  • Rachmaninov: The Bells, Op. 35 / Taneyev: John of Damascus, Op. 1
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Rachmaninov: The Bells, Op. 35 / Taneyev: John of Damascus, Op. 1 Import

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Audio CD, Import, April 2, 2001
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Editorial Reviews

Rachmaninov allegedly considered The Bells to be his best work, and it is not difficult to hear why. Written in 1913, it has a freshness of invention that is irresistible. Perhaps the text (an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe poem) struck a chord with this composer's sensibilities: different bells symbolize different facets of existence. The piece deserves more frequent airing, and it is to be hoped that Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian forces help raise awareness of it. The soloists are superb (Mescheriakova is particularly impressive), but the real star is the Moscow State Chamber Choir. This is a worthy companion to Pletnev's accounts of Rachmaninov orchestral works. Also included is a piece by Sergei Taneyev, a composer who should be more widely appreciated. Too often castigated in the textbooks for being overly academic, his works nevertheless demonstrate a creative originality that has immediate appeal. The cantata John of Damascus is something of a find. The Russian National Orchestra creates a superbly chilly atmosphere in the first movement, and once again the choir triumphs with fervent singing that conveys belief in the quality of this music. The Bells ranks as a fine modern performance, but the Taneyev might prove even more fascinating. --Colin Clarke


Just as it is hard to imagine a non-English-speaking choir doing full justice to Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony, so its near-contemporary Russian cousin ideally needs all-Russian forces in order to do it full justice. This is just what we have here, and the results are superb, thanks in large part to the resonant voices of the Moscow State Chamber Choir. As Pletnev's DG recordings of the numbered symphonies have already shown, he knows just how to blend Rachmaninov's characteristic moods to their best advantage – the delicacy, the sensuousness, the wild enthusiasm, the over-arching sadness, all are faithfully captured. Behind the 'mellow wedding bells' of the second movement Pletnev finds a deep longing, and he holds the mood of the sombre finale marvellously.Sergei Larin's tenor may not be ideally mellifluous, and Vladimir Chernov's baritone has a stronger beat in the voice than some may like, but these two at least set the right tone for the outer movements. And Marina Mescheriakova is a name to watch among the burgeoning ranks of new bel canto Russian sopranos – she produces some wonderfully heartfelt and tender sounds in the second movement.There is strong competition from the listed comparisons. Polyansky's choir is if anything even finer than Pletnev's, but his soloists let him down, and the Chandos recording quality sounds artificially glamorous. Now economically packaged on three discs, Ashkenazy's fine Rachmaninov cycle (the three numbered symphonies plus The Bells, The isle of the dead and the Symphonic Dances) – makes a splendid bargain. His choir and soloists may be a fraction less idiomatic than Pletnev's; but I do prefer Decca/London's more open sound – as with DG's previous Russian National Orchestra recordings, this one does feel just a little constricted. Taneyev's Op. 1 cantata makes an adventurous coupling, though a less startling one now that Polyansky's fine recent recording is also in the catalogue (saddled, however, with a soggy account of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony). It is, to be frank, no better or worse a piece than you would expect from an exceptionally studious 24-year-old with a penchant for counterpoint (the last movement is a neo-Handelian fugue). But collectors of rare Russian repertoire will be grateful for it, nonetheless, and Pletnev directs a stirring performance.David Fanning -- From International Record Review - subscribe now

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Product Details

  • Performer: Moscow State Chamber Choir
  • Conductor: Mikhail Pletnev
  • Composer: Sergei Rachmaninov, Sergei Taneyev
  • Audio CD (April 2, 2001)
  • SPARS Code: DDD
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Format: Import
  • Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  • ASIN: B00005AX5X
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #100,571 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Ralph Moore TOP 500 REVIEWER on March 18, 2011
Format: Audio CD
While the classic recording of this wonderfully kaleidoscopic piece might be the old Kondrashin on Melodiya, if you want modern digital sound you are likely to go for either of these two - although the couplings might heavily influence your decision.

In brief, Pletnev has the more sumptuous sound and takes a more intense, measured approach to Rachmaninov's similarly rich, layered score, while Dutoit has slightly leaner sound and is sharper and more propulsive in his interpretation - yet their timings are identical for the second Lento movement. My feeling is that Dutoit has the better overview, presenting the four movements as a true symphony whereas Pletnev brings greater impact to key moments such as the great choral outburst at "Skov" in that second "golden bells" section.

Regarding the choirs, the Philadelphians almost convince us of their ability to suggest Russian authenticity; they are a bigger outfit than the Moscow State Chamber Choir who, while obviously Russian in their attack and depth of tone, are very slightly underpowered by comparison but compensate for lack of sheer weight with more pointed underlining of the words. There is less clarity and definition in the singing of Dutoit's choir - which might also be an effect of a more blurred sound in the engineering and in the third, purely choral movement, of Dutoit's option for the denser vocal arrangement.

Dutoit has more conventional, neater-voiced soloists: Kaludov is decidedly more ingratiating of tone than the grainy, rough-voiced Larin but the latter is more characterful. Both sopranos are the real deal, making a voluminous Russian sound, but Mescheriakova, although just a little clumsy, is more exciting than the more delicate, nuanced Pendachanska.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 22, 2002
Format: Audio CD
This is an extraordanary album.
Pletnev, orchestra, choir, singers and soundengineers gives you a wonderful, enjoyable moment listening to this masterpiece.
It starts like a happy birth with joyful cheerish song and ends up... well it is done after a poem by Edgar Allan Poe so... but anyway... if you like russian singing at its BEST and a GREAT piece dont hesitate to buy this and the filler...
... Taneyev is more than a filler and by that I mean it is VERY good
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Santa Fe Listener HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on May 14, 2010
Format: Audio CD
Mikhail Pletnev enjoyed a honeymoon with Western listeners around the time of the emergence of the new Russia, putting together a polished orchestra that was like a breath of fresh air compared to the usual crude Soviet ensemble. But he was overpraised as a conductor, perhaps as an afterglow from his superlative piano playing. This 2001 account of The Bells from 2001 was the capstone of his Rachmaninov cycle. It offers refined orchestral work, excellent vocal soloists, a smallish but superior chorus, and a blessed lack of Soviet punch and crudeness. This last point is especially important. The composer was the epitome of a White Russian aristocrat, in no way a Red Russian comrade. He felt much closer to the French Symbolistes than to a Siberian potato commune.

We spent decades hearing his exquisite "choral symphony" from 1913 filtered through a hearty, at times bombastic sensibility. Pletnev reverses that misrepresentation. The Bells is very difficult to bring off. It requires, without a doubt, a Russian chorus and soloists. Each movement has its own mood, roughly following Poe's four-part poem. In the original, the bells are tinkly and silver, then golden and joyous, brazen and terrifying, and finally iron and demonic. Rachmaninov keeps to this ground plan fairly roughly, transposing the four moods into the ages of man from birth to death. It's a viable adaptation, and he conjures something of Poe's eerie aestheticism and perverse love of death in the finale, which defies convention by being very slow. The rest has little relationship to Poe's versification and unique sound world.

Rachmaninov put his ultimate skill as an orchestrator into this work, in keeping with two other choral symphonies, Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde and Zemlinsky's Lyric Sym.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Penhoet on July 3, 2004
Format: Audio CD
For some reason I didn't listen to this disc for a very long time after receiving it but once I started listening I could not stop. Whether this music is typical Rakhmaninov or atypical I cannot say. There are some aspects of the harmony and orchestration that are Rakhmaninov trademarks but it's hard to say whether one could listen to the music without knowing who wrote it and immediately guess that it was Rakhmaninov. Perhaps it's because Rakhmaninov is best known for his piano and orchestral works that the choral aspect throws one off the scent. In any case, this is one of Rakhmaninov's most beautiful and moving works. You don't have to know Russian to appreciate it though it does help; the inclusion of the transliterated text allows you to follow along phonetically if you wish though I would also have appreciated the original Cyrillic text. The mood and orchestral colour clearly transmit the atmosphere of each movement, whether that be the rushing of the sleighs, the panic of the alarm bells, or the gloom of the funeral bells. I'm tempted to ask why this work is not in the standard repertoire but it's pretty obvious that the Russian text makes it less accessible to Western singers and audiences. Still, this is unquestionably one of the greatest works of the 20th Century and should be more often played. Magnificent recording!
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