Here are two masterpieces liberated by the fall of the Soviet Union. Every Russian music lover knew about Rachmaninov's cantata, The Bells, which he called his greatest work, but performances in the West were scarce at best. The composer's last orchestra work, the Symphonic Dances (also scored fro two pianos), were somewhat better known beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg, but it took an influx of great Russian conductors to open our ears to two marvelous scores.
The challenge for Semyon Bychkov, who emigrated to America quite early with his family as Russian Jews, is that The Bells and the Symphonic Dances now enjoy a prosperous abundance of good recordings, especially the latter. The Bells requires three very accomplished vocal soloists and a chorus that's convincing in Russian, so there's always room for betterment. One day we may get recordings from the three greatest emigre conductors, Gergiev, Vladimir Jurowski, and Vasily Petrenko (the last two have given superb concert readings), but Bychkov easily floats pas the versions by Charles Dutoit, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Mikhail Pletnev by injecting a stronger forward motion and greater excitement. In fact, if you want maximum thrills from The Bells, this version wwon't disappoint. It is also vividly recorded, which counts in a work as tricky before the microphones as the Beethoven Ninth.
There are other considerations, naturally. If I place Bychkov's version next to another live reading, from Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Phil. on Chancos, telling differences emerge. Noseda, an veteran opera conductor with long experience at the Mariinsky Theatre, has imported their chorus, whose articulation of Russian is much clearer and more convincing than Byrchkov's non-natives in the chorus of West German Radio. They deliver a blurry sound, rather distantly miked, from which I can't pick a single syllable most of the time. As for the vocal trio, honors are split. The days are long past when anyone but Slavic singers undertake the parts, and although there will be grumbling about characteristic wobbling, none of these singers are very guilty, and all sing very convincingly. Bychov's tenor, with his nasal, sharp tone, sounds more russian, perhaps; he's quite energetic, too. And the soprano for Bychkov is a touch more sensitive. Noseda's bass has a rich, ripe Boris voice and is quite moving; Bychkov's has a tighter, more Westernized voice. On the whole, however, we get superior soloists all around.
Even if Bychkov is a little more dramatic, for me the fillers tell the tale. Bychkov's Symphonic Dances, which contain a surprising degree of understatement, are not a great addition. After years of scarcity, we now have splendid recordings by Ashkenazy, Jansons, and Gergiev, among others. They are far more distinctive and compelling than this new version. Noseda, on the other hand, gives us Rachmaninov's fervent Cantata, "Spring," along with the rarely heard but haunting Three Russian Songs. I get impatient when consumerism enters the field of art, but in this case Bychkov's The Bells, fine as it is, amounts to half a CD, and if I'm being ruthless, that's not quite enough.