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This review is from: Rachmaninov: The Bells; Symphonic Dances (Audio CD)
There can be no doubt that during Simon Rattle's tenure with the Berliner Philharmoniker he has extended both his and the orchestra's repertoire, as with this this new recording on Warner Classics (taking up EMI's mantle). It features Rachmaninoff's The Bells, captured in its first ever performance by the BPO, and the composer's late Symphonic Dances. There are fierier accounts of both works on record and, like this year's BPO account of The Rite of Spring and last year's Carmen, you often wish Rattle could get out of his own way when performing scores of a vivid and theatrical nature, though it is nonetheless rewarding to hear Rachmaninoff played by this great orchestra.
East meets West in The Bells, as the BPO and the superb Rundfunkchor Berlin are joined by the Slovakian soprano Luba Orgonásova and native Russians Dmytro Popov (tenor) and Mikhail Petrenko (bass). The opening movement, 'The Silver Sleigh Bells', is performed with snow-like delicacy, before bursting forth in ripe full-voiced colour. No less plush is the string playing in 'The Mellow Wedding Bells' that follows, which Rattle shapes with swooning sensuality.
Things should boil over in the final two movements, though Rattle maintains a rather tight grip on 'The Loud Alarum Bells', where precision appears more important to him that unbridled passion and he fails to deliver the requisite climactic punch. But the lugubrious finale, 'The Mournful Iron Bells', again features some ravishing playing, not least from the solo cor anglais, against which Mikhail Petrenko sounds his doleful, affecting threnody.
As with Gergiev's recent recording of the Symphonic Dances with the LSO, Rattle is keen to emphasise the adjective rather than the noun in the title, with the dances lacking a little terpsichorean schwung - this is a notably slower performance than Ashkenazy's benchmark recording with the Concertgebouw. Unlike Gergiev, however, and indeed Rattle's interpretation of The Bells, Rattle does let rip at the climaxes, unleashing a particularly dazzling display at the end of the opening movement.
The grinding brass fanfares at the opening of the ensuing waltz have sufficient snarl, though the strings are rather placid in response. Yet even if it's all a little back-footed, the reprise of the dance has a suitably Ravelian lilt. But it is only in the final movement that the attendant danger of La Valse, for instance, really kicks in and the conductor and his orchestra show both themselves and these glittering showstoppers to the best of their advantage. Rattle may be keen to withhold that excitement until the end, but Rachmaninoff demands a more spendthrift approach to colour.