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., both triumphs of orchestration. It is also as sumptuous as its kin, and perhaps more coloristic than either. We are lounging in a purple haze, voluptuously bathed in Rachmaninov's slithery harmonies. I cannot fault the notable Russian tenor, Sergei Larin, or the equally impressive baritone, Vladimir Chernov, whose appearances in the first and last movement are more important than the soprano's in the second movement, where Marina Mescheriakova is lovely but not entirely memorable. The chamber chorus sings strongly, and although Pletnev has chosen the simplified alternative score for the Scherzo, I don't feel a huge loss (the Gramophone critic did).
In the end, there's something a bit too safe about Pletnev's direction. We still need for a Gergiev, Petrenko, or Jurowski to do full justice to this elusive yet very beautiful work. Petnev's illustrious predecessors, Svetlanov and Kondrahsin, produced readings in the Soviet mold and were given bad Soviet-era sound. Among Western recordings, the Decca one with Ashkenazy looks promising and features a sterling solo from Tom Krause in the finale, but the conducting is disjointed and ham-handed by turns. No, Pletnev will have to do for now while we wait to see if someone can expose The Bells as an unblemished masterpiece.