RACHMANINOV: The Bells/Symphonic Dances/Symphony No. 2/Documentary (2007)
Semyon Bychkov, conductor; Enrique Sanchez Lansch, director
Tatiana Pavlovskaya, soprano; Evgeny Akimov, tenor; Vladimir Vaneev, baritone
Lege Artist Chamber Choir; WDR Rundfunkchor Köln; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln

I first met Semyon Bychkov in the 1980s in Toronto when I interviewed him for a CJRT-FM broadcast. He had recently taken over the Buffalo Philharmonic and made a huge impression with a deeply moving performance of the Shostakovich Fifth. I found him to be an articulate and inspiring young conductor. He seemed to have all the answers yet his confidence was neither threatening nor arrogant. There was an underlying sincerity that endeared him to other musicians.

After a few seasons in Buffalo he went on to become music director of the Orchestre de Paris and then to one of the best radio orchestras in Germany, the WDR Symphony in Cologne, where he remains. In Cologne he is doing fine work, much of it documented on CDs and DVDs. We have many of the Shostakovich symphonies, lots of Richard Strauss, all the Brahms symphonies, several operas including Strauss’ Daphne with Renée Fleming, and now this excellent Rachmaninov set.

Bychkov speaks such flawless English that we sometimes forget that he was born in St. Petersburg and received all his basic musical training in the Soviet Union. Russian music is in his blood and he has become a master interpreter of its greatest composers.

I must confess that I came late to the Rachmaninov Second Symphony. Perhaps I was not ready for the piece. I strongly believe that there are some pieces you cannot appreciate when you are young either because you are not mature enough or because you have not learned enough about music or about life. In the case of the Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2 I think it was a case of not having suffered enough and not having enough to look back on with regret and sadness at turns not taken or opportunities lost, and friends and family who have died. It is the shock of realizing we may be – indeed we will be – next or close to it. Death has finally become part of our destiny. Melancholy, death and nostalgia are very much a part of the Rachmaninov E minor Symphony. One can enjoy it on the level of the big, fat romantic tunes but getting inside the piece is something else. But what a wonderful realization that is too! After half a century studying music to make another profound discovery is so energizing! When this piece finally got to me I was moved to go back and study the score and listen to all the available recordings. My love for the piece only grew stronger.

Bychkov recorded the Rachmaninov 2nd symphony for the first time with the Orchestre de Paris in the 1990s but his latest version is much better. He never loses sight of the long line but takes time to allow those brooding dark corners to make their full effect. Rachmaninov is very sparing with his major climaxes – there is only one in each of the first, third and last movements – and Bychkov makes sure they achieve their full effect. Those of us nurtured on Bruckner and Mahler often expect more and bigger in the last movement, but this is Rachmaninov; in his view the ultimate grandeur and power in this life is illusory and fleeting, and so it is in this great symphony.

This is a wonderful performance created, no doubt, from many lonely hours of study on his part and then many more hours of rehearsal with his orchestra. The result is a performance that has mastered every detail and which is pulsing with life in every bar. Bychkov is the kind of conductor who does not appear to be doing much in performance – he never cues individual instruments – but it is obvious he has meticulously seen to every aspect of the performance. The orchestra plays magnificently.

Admittedly, Bychkov’s conducting style is idiosyncratic. He often sways from side to side; one wonders if it makes the players dizzy. He also has a beat with no sharp edges, more like a choral conductor rather than a symphony conductor. I am not sure it would be effective in contemporary music but perhaps he changes his technique accordingly.

There are complete performances of all three Rachmaninov works in this set, played by the orchestra in its own hall in Cologne, but without an audience and the musicians are in street clothes. In addition, the set includes a long and unusual documentary based on what appear to be dress rehearsals for these same performances.

The music is interrupted from time to time by either 1) interviews with Bychkov in which he talks about Rachmaninov and his evolution as a composer, 2) interviews with musicians who talk about how they feel about playing in this orchestra, 3) archival film clips mostly from life in Russia in Rachmaninov’s early years, and 4) shots of ice melting or chess pieces being moved on a board. A superficial first impression is that this is all a mishmash and the work of a director who tried to do too many things at once, but if one is prepared to give the director the benefit of the doubt there are rewards.

Bychkov appears to be speaking extemporaneously but shows a detailed knowledge of Rachmaninov’s life and states of mind, and how they informed the music he wrote. The younger players talk of their worries about fitting in and the older ones about retirement. Against this information as we watch them play Rachmaninov they have become more human and Rachmaninov’s own life-journey and their awareness of it in the music they are playing draws us into the performance and what music means to those who make it and those who listen to it. The melting ice and the chess pieces are something else. The director lost me there, but no matter; I enjoyed the juxtaposition of all the other elements well enough.

The Bells is a choral work in four movements based on a poem by Edgar Alan Poe. The poetry is not especially profound in its celebration of various sorts of bells, but Rachmaninov clearly responded to the dark side - bells signaling disasters and death. He avoids burdening us with endless bell sounds in the orchestra but creates a compelling texture nonetheless. The performance is as fine as any I have heard.

Finally, we come to Rachmaninov’s last work, the Symphonic Dances. Stylistically, not much has changed since the Second Symphony written twenty-two years earlier but one could say the same about Richard Strauss. No matter. The dances are hauntingly beautiful and Bychkov and his orchestra play them superbly.

The audio quality throughout the set is first-rate with a vast dynamic range and lovely textures. The video direction is very good while sometimes showing us musicians who are either playing secondary parts or nothing at all. Some might find this a weakness but it didn’t bother me at all. As we sit in an audience at a concert we often look at players not at the centre of things and that too is part of the experience.