NSO, Choral Arts Society ring in Rachmaninoff’s glorious ‘Bells’

NSO, Choral Arts Society ring in Rachmaninoff’s glorious ‘Bells’

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Veteran Russian conductor Vassily Sinaisky leads a lustrous performance of a work unfamiliar to many in DC. Also on tap: Borodin and Mozart, plus a really swell organ recital.

National Symphony Orchestra, courtesy of the orchestra and the Kennedy Center.

WASHINGTON, April 17, 2015 – Under the direction of Russian guest conductor Vassily Sinaisky, a former music director and chief conductor at the Bolshoi, the National Symphony Orchestra, joined by the Choral Arts Society of Washington, presented a varied and rather unusual program of mostly Russian music at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Thursday evening.

NSO Principal Clarinetist Loren Kitt. (Courtesy NSO)
NSO Principal Clarinetist Loren Kitt. (Courtesy NSO)

Thursday’s program flanked Mozart’s delightful Concerto in A-major for Clarinet and Orchestra, K. 622—performed by the NSO’s principal clarinetist Loren Kitt—with the Overture to Borodin’s only opera, “Prince Igor” and Rachmaninoff’s massive choral symphony “The Bells,” Op. 35 (1913).

Much beloved by Mozart fans and clarinetists alike, the composer’s Clarinet Concerto in A has all the wit and charm you’d expect. But is also makes frequent, albeit brief, excursions into the minor key—perhaps reflecting Mozart’s sense of his own mortality, given that this work was completed only two months before his death.

Nonetheless, much of the concerto is filled with Mozartian sunniness, plus the added attraction of numerous and wicked leaps and runs guaranteed to make this concerto a showpiece for a talented and creative clarinet soloist. In featured soloist Loren Kitt, we had both.

Mr. Kitt and the orchestra took a leisurely approach to the concerto, making it pleasant to hear, but almost playfully masking the soloist’s considerable skill, so easy and effortless did everything feel. Mr. Kitt’s beautifully executed legato phrases were as smooth as silk, an almost textbook example of how this music should be played.

Under Mr. Sinaisky’s skillful baton, the NSO accompanied the soloist with grace and sensitivity, further enhancing the overall presentation. Our only quibble with this entire wonderful performance was what we regarded as a rather too slow middle movement. But that was a minor issue in this performance, one of the finest we’ve heard to date.

Bust of Alexander Borodin.
Bust of composer Alexander Borodin on his tombstone. (Via Wikipedia)

The evening opened with a rousing performance of Borodin’s Overture to his massive opera, “Prince Igor.” Surprisingly, Thursday’s performance was the NSO’s first-ever public encounter with this relatively popular piece, one that’s highlighted by quotations of many key musical moments of an opera that, aside from its famous “Polovstian Dances,” remains quite unknown in the United States.

Depending on which musicologist you believe, the overture we hear today was either written by Borodin himself, once removed; or it was crafted entirely by Alexander Glazunov, who with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff dedicated himself to putting together a performing version of the unfinished “Prince Igor” after Borodin’s untimely death at the age of 53.

For years, the story was that Glazunov—known for his photographic memory for music—had heard Borodin himself play the still un-orchestrated overture on the piano and re-created it from memory. Skeptical scholars today are not so sure of that, although the overture we have today most certainly does contain those key elements from the opera.

Significantly, the Metropolitan Opera’s recent performance of a new, somewhat radically-reconstructed performing version of “Igor”—which we were fortunate to see recently via a “Met in HD” performance at a local theater—eliminated the overture entirely.

The object of this somewhat controversial reconstruction, which presented the Polovstian Dances as an hallucinatory romp through a field of red poppies, was to create a version of “Igor” that contained as much of Borodin’s original music and as little of Rimsky’s and Glazunov’s additions, deletions and bridge work as possible. Clearly, the musicians and musicologists who put this version together regarded the overture as “inauthentic,” which is why, aside from issues of length, they likely discarded it.

We ourselves still regard the overture as largely Borodin’s creation, at least in the sense that it’s his music, spinning out as it does the work’s key tunes just as overtures are traditionally supposed to do. However, its structure and color clearly remind one of Glazunov’s lush compositional style and contain splashes of that unmistakable Rimsky color.

Whatever you want to believe about the overture’s “authenticity,” however, it’s a great little piece of music and the perfect way to open a Russian-centric program. The NSO sounded good in this performance, and Maestro Sinaisky incorporated interesting touches, including pronounced tempo transitions and numerous and highly effective mini-crescendos and decrescendos.

The orchestral blend, however, still seemed to need a bit of work as Thursday evening’s performance unfolded. For example, the brass writing is wonderful in this overture, quite dramatic and well placed for effect, and NSO’s brass proclaimed these passages almost flawlessly. However, in the early going, the brass also tended to drown out the strings that were carrying the melody line.

It was still a joy to hear this piece in D.C. at last, however, so we’re not really complaining, although concertgoers attending this series concert Friday or Saturday evening may find these issues have already been rectified.

Composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. (Library of Congress photo)
Composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. (Library of Congress photo)

The “big piece” on Thursday’s program, however, was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s bright and brilliant choral symphony entitled “The Bells.” The NSO’s program tells us that the only other performance of this work by the orchestra took place way back in 1977. That’s as hard to believe as the fact that Borodin’s “Igor” overture had never been performed here at all prior to Thursday’s performance. Judging from the audience reception, however, the orchestra might want to consider putting this unusual work on its program a little more often.

At the very least, there’s a real novelty aspect to this work. Serendipitously informed that a well-known poet had recently translated Edgar Allen Poe’s bizarre but unmistakably metrical, rhythmical and musical poem “The Bells” into Russian, Rachmaninoff seized upon the idea and got to work on something new.

The composer had always loved the sound of Russian bells. His new creation turned out to be a virtual symphony in four movements, each of which focused on key elements of the poem that unite to drive this inventive and dramatic work for large orchestra (including bells, loads of percussion and three keyboard instruments), soloists and chorus.

Poe and Rachmaninoff. Who could have seen that one coming?

Rachmaninoff’s new composition was premiered in St. Petersburg in 1913 with the composer at the podium, and it was judged a success. It’s been in the repertoire ever since and often recorded, although in this country, it’s not often you run into a live performance.

Choral Arts Society of Washington.
Choral Arts Society of Washington during recent Kennedy Center Christmas Concert. (Via Facebook)

How lucky we were to encounter this one. Under the baton of Maestro Sinaisky, who’s clearly familiar with this blockbuster of a composition, the NSO turned in a terrific performance. Ditto the Choral Arts Society—which also happened to have sung the work in its only other performance here—as well as the trio of fine soloists—tenor Sergey Semishkur, soprano Dina Kuznetsova and baritone Elchin Azazov—who dove right into the first, second and final movements each with distinctly different approaches to the various moods of this music.

Mr. Semishkur was first up, adding his lyric voice to the silvery, jingling sounds of “The Silver Sleigh Bells.” The happiest and least complicated of the four movements, this one colorfully depicts a frosty winter ride through the Russian countryside (sorry, Mr. Poe), with the tenor and the chorus alternately describing the journey.

Mr. Semishkur performed his difficult part with great, almost boyish enthusiasm. Unfortunately, from time to time, the work’s immense choral and orchestral forces washed in and overwhelmed his instrument. Perhaps only a Wagnerian heldentenor can soar above all this action—but such a tenor might have lacked the gracious, lyrical touch this movement requires and which Mr. Semishkur delivered.

The second movement, a surprisingly contemplative and almost reluctant wedding celebration (“The Mellow Wedding Bells”) shifts the mood completely, acting as this symphony’s “slow movement.” Again scored for orchestra, chorus and (this time) the soprano soloist, it offers a wonderful opportunity for the solo singer to explore the myriad intense emotions that a wedding celebration can bring.

And wonderful was the word for the performance here of soprano Dina Kuznetsova, whose lustrous voice proved as rich and mellow as those “mellow” wedding bells themselves. She wrapped herself sinuously around her part, nicely assisted by the chorus, which once again engaged in a musical dialogue.

As they suddenly erupted to introduce the considerable action of movement three—marked “Presto”—both the chorus and the very noisy and percussive orchestra rang in “The Loud Alarm Bells,” the poet’s re-creation of all the chaos and fear surrounding a major city fire, complete with the clanging bells of fire-trucks and emergency vehicles. This is the loudest and wildest of the four movements, and both the choral and orchestral forces, sans soloists here, gave a viscerally exciting performance of this almost visual set piece.

The finale once again changes the mood of this work, as things become considerably more somber when “The Mournful Iron Bells” make their appearance. These are church bells, tolling bells, funeral bells, the bells perhaps our spirits may hear after life is ended. Rachmaninoff’s excursion reaches its conclusion here, as does Poe’s poem, having run through the cycle of life as recalled and intoned by the various bells associated with these times.

Appropriately, the soloist assigned to these closing, at times almost convulsive moments, is the baritone, in this case Elchin Azizov. His clear, incisive, well-enunciated vocal valedictory had all the authority needed to convey the mood of these “mournful bells.” Joined by the chorus, Mr. Azizov and the orchestra concluded the performance with an appropriately sensitive yet colorful approach to this grandly dramatic yet ambiguous finale.

Aside from occasionally problematic diction on the part of the chorus—which sang beautifully otherwise—this was simply a great performance of Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells,” again a work we should clamor to see and hear a bit more frequently at the Kennedy Center. It’s a wonderful showpiece, and in this case, it was conducted by exactly the right conductor and performed by exactly the right soloists and chorus, all of whom were joined by an NSO that dug into the work and made it their own. Bravo!

Rating: *** ½ (3 ½ out of 4 stars)

BTW: Thursday’s concertgoers—at least those who chose to stay—also got a chance to stay on after the concert to hear an absolutely brilliant recital by guest organist Erik Wm. Suter. These “Organ Postludes,” occasional but welcome Thursday features during each NSO season, are meant to highlight the excellence of the Concert Hall’s still-new Rubenstein Family Organ. This particular “Postlude,” however, proved to be so phenomenal that we’ll be posting a separate review of it in this section sometime later today.

The National Symphony Orchestra will perform this Borodin-Mozart-Rachmaninoff program once more this weekend, Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Tickets: $10-85.

For Tickets and Information: Visit the NSO section of the Kennedy Center’s website via this link, or call the box office at 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is located at 2700 F St. NW, Washington, D.C. 2056.

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