Rachmaninov’s choral symphony The Bells charts the passage of a life: the silver sleigh bells of childhood, golden wedding bells, the brass alarm bells of strife and the iron bells that eventually toll for us all. Rachmaninov skillfully alters both the orchestral texture and tone colour, using a different solo voice to match the mood.
The tenor Vsevolod Grivnov embodied the vocal ardour of youth in the swift-running opening movement. The celebration of conjugal love is operatically ardent but it found soprano Ekaterina Scherbachenko rather subdued and projecting mostly to her music stand. The scherzo is a choral tour-de-force and the CBSO Chorus rose to the challenge magnificently, vividly depicting the bells’ “brazen inferno” and “tormented sounds”. In the funereal finale – the inexorable pace recalling Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead – the baritone Elchin Azizov was superb, railing and raging against the dying of the light. The performance was expertly marshalled by conductor Vassily Sinaisky and chorus masters Simon Halsey and David Lawrence.
The CBSO Chorus’s presence in Tchaikovsky’s Overture 1812 – where their patriotic hymn replaced the opening string melody and returned for the peroration – restored gravitas and dignity to a work often mistreated as an excuse of pyrotechnics. Shostakovich’s first symphony, a precociously dazzling teenage romp, was crisply projected with playing full of character, not least from the CBSO’s leader Zoë Byers. The madcap scherzo – its prominent piano part recalling Shostakovich’s days as an accompanist for silent films – needed to be more manic, Sinaisky was a little too relaxed here.