Simon Rattle

Rachmaninov: The Bells; Symphonic Dances

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While Sergey Rachmaninov is not usually ranked with the great orchestrators, he showed ingenuity when inspired and created some highly effective scores, notably the choral cantata The Bells, and his final composition, the Symphonic Dances. This 2014 album by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic makes a good case for Rachmaninov's skillful and often brilliant treatment of the orchestra. Even though actual ringing sounds were obvious choices and unavoidable in The Bells (a setting of Konstantin Balmont's adaptation of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe), they were used sparingly, and much of the impact of the music is made by the complex and colorful orchestral writing, which is rather free of clichés. Furthermore, the choral writing is an intrinsic part of Rachmaninov's orchestration, smoothly woven into the textures of the instruments and deployed for its own rich palette. The Symphonic Dances, originally intended to be choreographed as a ballet by Mikhail Fokine, has been performed almost exclusively as a concert piece, and its appeal is due in no small part to its transparent, chamber-like scoring and the open interplay between the instruments, which display kaleidoscopic shifts of color. Rattle's sympathetic readings capture every tonal nuance and dynamic shading, and the choir, vocalists, and orchestra respond to his direction as a single ensemble, its sole purpose to convey Rachmaninov's powerful music with vividness and depth.

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