For generations of music lovers and Dutch radio listeners the Sunday morning Concerts in the Concertgebouw form a festive highlight of the day. The programme for this Sunday had an extra festive touch thanks to the specific chosen repertoire with one common feature: bells. The Main Hall of the Concertgebouw was chiming, resonating and reverberating together with Russian church bells, weddings bells, sleigh bells, funeral bells – bells in all ranges and timbres, from silver bells to full open sounds and profound, mournful ones.

James Gaffigan © Mat Hennek
James Gaffigan
© Mat Hennek
The order of the programme was changed just before the concert began and the audience was welcomed with the bells of Mussorgsky. The short but powerful Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov set the mood (and the level of artistic performance) and created a bright festive atmosphere. The impressive reverberation of bells filled the hall taking advantage of its exellent acoustics. The Groot Omroepkoor (Netherlands Radio Choir) with its spontaneous outbursts of jubilant song sounded as a vocal monolith: perfectly articulated, expressive in dynamics and in good balance with the vivid colours of the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest (Radio Philharmonic Orchestra). Colourfully imposing orchestral figuration and onstage bells gave a powerful ornament not only to Boris Godunov’s ceremonial entrance from the Cathedral after his coronation, but also to the whole concert.

The dramatical intensity of Mussorgsky’s mass scene with its characteristic tuning of Russian church peals asked for a few moments of silence and deep breath. These moments were provided by the magnetic transparency and clarity of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten. The Estonian composer, who celebrated his 80th anniversary on the 11th of September, wrote this canon as hommage to the “unusual purity” of Britten’s music in 1977. The orchestral lament of the strings and bell surrounded the audience with an increasing soundfield of intertwined lines and layers growing around the mournful bell.

But there were still more bells to expect. The fragile silence after Pärt’s Cantus was broken with the playful, bright, joyful clang of silvery sleigh bells of Sergei Rachmaninov. Following Edgar Allan Poe’s description of four sorts of bells, the Russian composer translated the bells and their sounding presence in human life into an orchestral poem for orchestra, chorus and three solo voices. Written in 1913, The Bells is dedicated to the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The four-parted ‘bells symphony’ is extremely demanding for soloists.

The tenor part, sung by Sergei Skorokhodov, is one especially difficult: the singer has to withstand an ocean of sounds and effects from the orchestra and chorus. Though Skorokhodov's tenor blended well with the orchestra, it was a little bit too much a part of it. The wedding bells of the second part echoed with the dynamic chorus and the beautifully equal and steady voice of Marina Rebeka, which floated without any difficulty over the chorus and orchestra. Alarm bells and a funeral bell followed with an impressive, thoroughly profound solo of the baritone Andrei Bondarenko, adding a deep orchestral sound tension to complete the work.

The whole programme of this Sunday morning Concert was met with an enthusiastic reception. Executed with a lot of excellent details (and without any shortcomings worth mentioning) it was unfailingly impressive. The chorus sounded distinctive, full of colour and perfectly blended with the orchestra. Under the baton of American conductor James Gaffigan, there was no absence of clarity or transparency of sound, a wealth of timbres created in an atmosphere of festivity, joy and enthusiasm.

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