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'The tintinnabulation that so musically wells'

Sergei Rachmaninoff is a composer whose instrumental music often seems wandering and overlong to me. Not unlike his compatriot Tchaikovsky, whose ballets and operas suit me much more than his symphonies and concertos, Rachmaninoff seemed to benefit from the restraint of a text or story. This is likely why Kolokola, a choral symphony based on Edgar Allan Poe's evocative poem The Bells, is so effective, a grand Rachmaninoff work that never oozes into Rachmaninoff's saccharine sound and does not overstay its welcome. For some reason, the National Symphony Orchestra had only performed the piece once in its entire history, back in 1977, in a concert led by the late Norman Scribner. Vassily Sinaisky made his NSO debut with a spirited rendition of the work, heard last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

The veteran Russian conductor, who resigned from the Bolshoi Theater in 2013 "to avoid conflict" with the new director, came with three fine Russian-trained soloists and a sure hand on this work less familiar outside of Russia. Norman Scribner's choir, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, engulfed the hall in sound in the opening movement ("Silver Sleigh Bells"), well prepared by Scott Tucker. Tenor Sergey Semishkur, after an uncertain and slightly off-pitch introduction, had a more heroic sound in the full parts of this movement, with its lovely parts for celesta and every metallic percussion instrument Rachmaninoff could get his hands on. The slow movement ("Mellow Wedding Bells") had oozing strings and a smoldering melody in the cellos, cushioning the ample tone of soprano Dina Kuznehtsova, wavering only when she had to float that high A toward the end of the movement.

The whole ensemble was most secure in the loud and fast third movement ("Loud Alarum Bells"), with groaning deep woodwinds and the chorus, seated in sections for security, beautifully schooled in swelled crescendi and -- more importantly -- decrescendi. A moody English horn solo introduced the funereal finale ("Mournful Iron Bells"), led by baritone Elchin Azizov with a menacing, dark sound to his imposing voice. Of course, Rachmaninoff here turned again to a quotation of the Dies irae sequence, although in a much more hidden way in this score, contributing to the work's solemn conclusion.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Debuting conductor offers experienced path through ‘The Bells’ (Washington Post, April 17)

Terry Ponick, NSO, Choral Arts Society ring in Rachmaninoff’s glorious ‘Bells’ (Communities Digital News, April 17)
The evening opened less auspiciously, with a somewhat messy, not quite fully digested performance of the overture to Borodin's Prince Igor, in the form reconstructed by Alexander Glazunov. This brought to the fore some of the more inscrutable qualities of Sinaisky's conducting style, although the musical ideas, especially the dynamic shading, were generally effective. The accelerandi and other tempo changes were not unified, and overall the piece, never before played by the NSO, needed more seasoning.

By contrast, Mozart's clarinet concerto (A major, K. 622) felt almost too familiar, too cozy and comfortable. Principal clarinetist Loren Kitt was authoritative in the solo part, equally beautiful in phrasing and tone, if perhaps a little too easygoing, certainly by contrast to the playing of Jörg Widmann, who last played the piece with the NSO in 2012. The Adagio here could have been slower, and the concluding Allegro was on the tame side, but Sinaisky and the NSO provided a warm, well-scaled envelope of sound for Kitt. It is hard not to like this piece, one of the most perfect concertos ever composed, not least because it lacks any cadenzas or any over-the-top virtuosic displays.

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow.

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