Rachmaninov: The Bells; Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky / Evgeny Svetlanov

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RACHMANINOFF The Bells. 1 PROKOFIEV Alexander Nevsky 2 Evgeny Svetlanov, cond; 1 Daniil Shtoda (ten); 1 Elena Prokina (sop); 1 Sergei Leiferkus (bs); 2 Alfreda Hodgson (mez); 1 BBC SO & Ch; 2 Philharmonia O & Ch ICA ICAC 5069 (78:30) Live: London 1 4/19/2002, 2 1/30/1988

Sometimes, archive recordings have the air of, “Well, as long as we have access to it, let’s release it on CD.” Some of ICA Classics’s BBC discs have presented fairly unexceptional music-making, to say the least. Here, though, we have one absolutely fabulous performance ( The Bells ) and one very good one ( Alexander Nevsky ), and I would even give them preference over Svetlanov’s studio recordings of these same works.

With gorgeous live sound to boot, this version of The Bells really rings my chimes, so to speak. This is a work that stands or falls with the quality of the chorus. When I first auditioned this disc, I was unaware that I was not hearing a native Russian group; that’s how good the BBC Symphony Chorus is here. Furthermore, some recordings of this work content themselves with wimpy or emotionally anonymous soloists. Tenor Daniil Shtoda, on the other hand, displays brilliance of both sound and temperament, and the first movement, depicting the silver sleigh bells of youth, has great élan. Sergei Leiferkus is appropriately mournful in the funereal fourth movement; as with Shtoda, familiarity with the language and the style pays off. I am less impressed with soprano Elena Prokina, who is affected by what used to be called a “Slavic wobble,” but even she convinces this listener with the involvement of her singing. Svetlanov tended to get slower as he got older. Here, though, he never drags, and he points up the contrasts between the four movements with vivid color and attention to mood. The booklet note indicates that he looked frail on this occasion, and in fact, he died just a few weeks later. There’s nothing infirm about his conducting here, though.

The sound in Alexander Nevsky is more recessed and even a little muffled, although not fatally so. It doesn’t shoot the performance in the foot, but of course this is music that benefits from as much sonic realism as engineers, live or in the studio, can muster. Svetlanov is more introspective here. I get the feeling that he was trying to purge the score of its inherent vulgarity without cutting down on its excitement. If that was the case, he largely succeeded. The Philharmonia Chorus can’t hide its Englishness (for better or worse) and mezzo Alfreda Hodgson is rather maternal in her sixth-movement solo. Still, there is a lot to like here. In some ways, this is like André Previn’s EMI studio recording in its refusal to confuse weight with ponderousness, its avoidance of bombast, and its rather sensitive demeanor. (I recently discovered the Previn on an English EMI LP, and it immediately moved to the top of my list, so my comparing Svetlanov to Previn is meant as high praise.) It’s better than Svetlanov’s harshly recorded and only superficially exciting Soviet-era studio recording.

No sung texts are included, but do you really need them? The booklet note includes an interesting bit of trivia: As a child, Svetlanov appeared onstage in the role of Trouble in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly . He also made, according to annotator Colin Anderson’s reckoning, more than 3,000 recordings for Russian, Japanese, French, British, and Dutch companies. And you thought Neeme Järvi made a lot of CDs!

I’d get this if I were you.

FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: ICAC 5069

  • UPC: 5060244550698

  • Label: ICA Classics

  • Composer: Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninov

  • Conductor: Yevgeny Svetlanov

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra

  • Performer: Alfreda Hodgson, Daniil Shtoda, Sergei Leiferkus, Yelena Prokina