on 21 September 2005
If you haven't come across 'The Bells' before, then don't delay. It was of course Rachmaninov's favourite of his own works, and it's certainly a departure from the better known Piano Concertos. The same richness and melodic brilliance is here, but the final movement Lento Lugubre in particular is very, very dark.
This recording is flawless and the release also contains the texts of the works which renders them far more accessible. The only criticism I would make is that Pletnev's interpretation is just slightly too glossy. For the ultimate creaking, terrifying, mysterious sounding version of this work, the Kondrashin archive recording on Melodiya has more atmosphere to it. As that, however, is hard to find, this one will do very nicely as a modern benchmark.
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. Both are very good indeed, just as are both celebrated the Russian baritones; Leiferkus has the more dangerous edge in his tone and Chernov the more beautiful voice.
Pletnev's unusual choice of coupling in Taneyev's John of Damascus might be a deciding factor for some. It is a very grand, noble choral composition, fusing Russian folk and liturgical music with strict counterpoint in the style of Bach; the concluding fugue is exciting in its own right and much more than a mere academic exercise. The chance to own and hear this might prove more attractive than Dutoit's more predictable coupling with what is arguably some of Rachmaninov's less striking choral writing. This, in combination with richer sound and Pletnev's greater depth of feeling, inclines me to the DG disc.