Despite being some of Rachmaninoff greatest works, there are few virtuoso recordings of The Bells and Symphonic Dances. The Berlin Philharmonic has never had a principal conductor known for Rachmaninov and to my knowledge this is their first recording of The Bells. Rattle has barely touched Rachmaninov, so has he been able to acclimate to the Russian temperament?
Rachmaninov considered The Bells his favorite composition, but it hasn't been recorded by today's leading Russian maestros, particularly Gergiev, Petrenko, and Jurowski. On ICA Classics there is a memorable recording from Svetlanov and the BBC Symphony that is full of dark, Russian soul. Jose Serebrier and Gianandrea Noseda have contributed readings that are likewise idiomatic and very Russian. Naturally, Rattle's account doesn't have the same flavor, given that he's a British conductor working with a German orchestra and choir. Thankfully the soloists, Luba Orgonasova, Dimytro Popov, and Mikhail Petrenko are Russian and very fine. From the opening bars of "The Silver Sleigh Bells", we enter a world that is more exuberant and carefree--there's no trace of darkness. Critics may complain that Rattle isn't Russian enough, but as we progress, we find music-making that is full of orchestral playing better by far than anything else on disc, bringing out a new world of detail. Surprisingly, Rattle ends up sounding more energetic than most of his rivals on disc. His tempos lean on the fast side and he finds his success in reading into the score's modernity and wide range of color. The alarm bells of the 3rd movement, for instance, build with startling vividness. In my estimation, the Rundfunkchor Berlin makes up for not being Russian with its highly accomplished sound that transmits the music with detailed accuracy. The only complaint listeners may have is that the account isn't Russian enough. While it's true that this reading doesn't displace rival Russian readings, I think it fills a unique place. It would be hard to deny the fervor emanated from all involved, recorded from the same concerts as the Le Sacre released in April.
There's not as great a shortage of readings of the Symphonic Dances, but few could truly be described as virtuosic. Ashkenazy's reading with the Concertgebouw was jaunty and lighthearted without aiming for orchestral depth. On the other hand, Gergiev's recent LSO Live recording was grave and serious, not one to highlight the solos or orchestration. The up-and-coming Petrenko almost seemed our best option, with fiery conducting that was dramatic without being heavy-footed, but he didn't have a great orchestra in the Royal Liverpool Phil. Rattle took advantage of his opportunity and we now have a new great reading that utilizes both the individuality and crushing impact of the Berliners. But for all his highlighting of new details, Rattle doesn't come across as fussy, his afflicting flaw. Anyone who finds deficits in Rattle's conducting has found flaws I'm incapable of hearing. The sonority of the Berliners, voiced impeccably, is staggering in full cry, making the most of the dramatic potential. Equally captivating, of course, are the many solos sprinkled throughout the work. I can assure you they are on a level far above anything else on disc.
Since he came to these works with little background in Rachmaninov, I feared Rattle might seem out of touch in these works. But instead we have readings that can be compared with the best, with incomparable playing--bravo.