Ringing Rachmaninoff's bells
Born in northern Russia, Rachmaninoff grew up with the sound of bells-sleigh bells and church bells, alarm bells and funeral bells-and the tintinnabulation of bells rings in his instrumental music from first to last. But with Poe's poem providing the metaphors, Rachmaninoff here translates the sound of bells into a language everyone can understand. Set for soprano, tenor, and bass soloists with chorus and orchestra, The Bells is Rachmaninoff's largest-scale work, and despite being written at a white heat, it is also one of his most cogently argued. Every detail, from the flute trills at the start to the muffled basses of the end, takes its place in a wholly unified and immensely compelling structure.
But vastly more important than the work's structure is its meaning. With a virtuoso compositional technique, Rachmaninoff expresses the essence of Poe's poem-the sparkling exhilaration of silver sleigh bells, the sensual excitement of golden wedding bells, the stark terror of brazen alarm bells, and the doleful gloom of iron funeral bells. And though each movement is enormously affecting, it is in the finale's closing pages that one hears Rachmaninoff's own fatalistic voice speaking in the tones of deep eternity.
Also on the program is Vaughan Williams's Flos Campi, a wordless setting of portions of the biblical Song of Songs for viola, small chorus, and orchestra. Arguably the English composer's sexiest work, its voluptuous melodies and opulent harmonies have to be heard to be believed.
[Originally published in February, 2009.]