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The Bells - Holbrooke vs Rachmaninov


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Author Topic: The Bells - Holbrooke vs Rachmaninov  (Read 563 times)
Albion
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« on: November 14, 2016, 04:44:26 pm »

I have recently been listening to the settings of Poe's "The Bells" by Joseph Holbrooke (BBC 1978 broadcast, in the downloads archive) and Rachmaninov (Ashkenazy): it strikes me that Holbrooke's setting comes far closer to the intended unsettling atmosphere that Poe envisaged than the more lushly romantic Rachmaninov. I can only hope that this broadcast is scheduled for release in Lyrita's Itter Broadcast Collection - even though the full panoply of Holbrooke's orchestration is not observed, this is a vibrant and characterful performance.
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"A piece is worth your attention, and is itself for you praiseworthy, if it makes you feel you have not wasted your time over it." (Sydney Grew, 1922)

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« Reply #1 on: November 15, 2016, 01:08:16 am »

Until I referenced the BBC recording from our Archive I had not realised that the work is actually a substantial 33 minutes in duration. The Marco Polo recording is only of the Prelude (which is 10 minutes long).

Extraordinary oversight on my part Roll Eyes
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« Reply #2 on: November 16, 2016, 09:37:37 am »

Until I referenced the BBC recording from our Archive I had not realised that the work is actually a substantial 33 minutes in duration. The Marco Polo recording is only of the Prelude (which is 10 minutes long).

Extraordinary oversight on my part Roll Eyes

Which one Colin?  The Holbrooke or the Rachmaninov?
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« Reply #3 on: November 16, 2016, 02:20:58 pm »

Until I referenced the BBC recording from our Archive I had not realised that the work is actually a substantial 33 minutes in duration. The Marco Polo recording is only of the Prelude (which is 10 minutes long).

Extraordinary oversight on my part Roll Eyes

Which one Colin?  The Holbrooke or the Rachmaninov?

Sorry...I was referring to the Holbrooke.

Rachmaninov's "The Bells" I have in three different versions (odd, one might think, since I am supposed not to like Rachmaninov's music-but, actually, I do like "The Bells" Grin). The Rachmaninov is 37-39 minutes long in the versions I possess.
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« Reply #4 on: November 16, 2016, 03:23:28 pm »

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it strikes me that Holbrooke's setting comes far closer to the intended unsettling atmosphere that Poe envisaged than the more lushly romantic Rachmaninov

I couldn't agree more, John. As I have probably said before, the two glaring omissions from Holbrooke's orchestration in the BBC recording are the concertina and the mushroom bells. The former has a very important part which is quite exposed sometimes, so one really misses it. The latter add a very special and solemn timbre; although they do mostly play at the same time as the tubular bells they play different notes in the chords and, reading the score, their absence is audible. There is a set of mushroom bells at the ROH, Covent Garden, I believe. I am sure they would have loaned them if asked.
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« Reply #5 on: December 10, 2016, 03:44:58 pm »

I have recently been listening to the settings of Poe's "The Bells" by Joseph Holbrooke (BBC 1978 broadcast, in the downloads archive) and Rachmaninov (Ashkenazy): it strikes me that Holbrooke's setting comes far closer to the intended unsettling atmosphere that Poe envisaged than the more lushly romantic Rachmaninov.

There are a couple of issues to consider, IMO. First, Rachmaninoff was working from a Russian loose translation of the poem, so the translation itself surely contributed to Rachmaninoff's setting.

Second, Rachmaninoff used the poem as a vehicle, but his real interest was in the bells. He had been fascinated by bells since childhood, especially as the bells of the Orthodox church rang on different occasions and sleigh bells were so common during Russian winters. Bells appear in other music by Rachmaninoff. Most notably, the pattern of Orthodox bells, a step-wise pattern, is heavily used in his symphonies. Rachmaninoff also used the Catholic chant for the dead, Dies irae, in almost all of his orchestral works and especially throughout The Bells.

These were the familiar settings of bells for Rachmaninoff, and given the loose translation of Poe's poem that he was using, it's not surprising that his composition turned out as it did.

I've listened to the Holbrooke piece several times. As to whether it is more successful at rendering Poe's poem, I suppose that's a matter of opinion. I find the strains of Dies irae quite ominous in Rachmaninoff's setting. The 3rd movement, when properly performed, is certainly frightening, and the iron bells of death truly depressing. But it can be argued that Rachmaninoff is not as dark as Poe might have liked overall. Holbrooke may have been more successful at that.

I've tracked down around 40 commercial and broadcast recordings of Rachmaninoff's The Bells. The Holbrooke, well, not so many. There's a reason for that. Exact fidelity to the spirit of Poe is not really of particular importance to most people, I think. Certainly not for me. I'm glad to have heard the Holbrooke a few times, but I'll return to the Rachmaninoff when I need a Bells fix.


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« Reply #6 on: December 10, 2016, 06:57:22 pm »

In spite of my deep love for Rachmaninov's music, in this particular instance I still find Holbrooke's setting far more melodically memorable and atmospherically distinctive than the Russian's ...

 Huh
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« Reply #7 on: December 10, 2016, 07:01:41 pm »

a Russian loose translation of the poem,

Before much more is said about this "loose translation" (sic), it is perhaps worth mentioning that the poetic translation was by Konstantin Balmont -  one of the most glittering stars of Russian poetry of the period. Balmont had published his Poe translations in the 1890s, and they were not written at Rachmaninov's request...  they had been in print for a number of years, and are still considered the standard translation of Poe's work in Russian. His own poetry took shape against the background of the events foreshadowing the Russian Revolution, and he became regarded as the leader of the Symbolists. This kind of work failed to find favour with the new aesthetics in Russia after 1917, and he spent most of the rest of his life in self-imposed exile, just like Rachmaninov. In fact Rachmaninov (along with other Russian emigres) took part in a charity concert to raise money for Balmont when his fortunes took a dive. He died in France, in extreme poverty.
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« Reply #8 on: December 10, 2016, 07:20:43 pm »

In spite of my deep love for Rachmaninov's music, in this particular instance I still find Holbrooke's setting far more melodically memorable and atmospherically distinctive than the Russian's ...

 Huh
Me too! Worrying,isn't it?! Huh Grin
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« Reply #9 on: December 11, 2016, 01:24:01 am »

In spite of my deep love for Rachmaninov's music, in this particular instance I still find Holbrooke's setting far more melodically memorable and atmospherically distinctive than the Russian's ...

 Huh

No way!!  Rachmaninoff's setting is a masterpiece. Holbrooke's is immediately forgettable.  I fundamentally disagree with you on this.  I have listened to much of Holbrooke's music and frequently find it forgettable and lacking any nuance.  I am quite stunned that someone would think that the late Rachmaninoff masterpiece is second to a mediocre Holbrooke effort.  This is one of Rachmaninoff's greatest works.   Huh Shocked Huh
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« Reply #10 on: December 11, 2016, 05:35:37 am »

the late Rachmaninoff masterpiece  

I can't agree that The Bells is a late Rachmaninoff work, surely?  It was written in 1913, prior to his departure from Russia. Sergey Rachmaninoff lived and worked a further 30 years after, dying in 1943. Although it may be true that - as he complained himself - he was more relished as a pianist than a composer in the USA, there is a great deal of music which he composed after The Bells.

Frankly I am staying out of the argument about "which is the better setting"...  it's a matter of taste, and both works have much to recommend them. Neither work gains in stature by disparagement of the other, in my view.
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« Reply #11 on: December 11, 2016, 04:33:08 pm »

the late Rachmaninoff masterpiece  

I can't agree that The Bells is a late Rachmaninoff work, surely?  It was written in 1913, prior to his departure from Russia. Sergey Rachmaninoff lived and worked a further 30 years after, dying in 1943. Although it may be true that - as he complained himself - he was more relished as a pianist than a composer in the USA, there is a great deal of music which he composed after The Bells.

Frankly I am staying out of the argument about "which is the better setting"...  it's a matter of taste, and both works have much to recommend them. Neither work gains in stature by disparagement of the other, in my view.
I'll stay out of that, too, although what you note about the work's place in the chronology of Rachmaninoff's creative career is of course undeniable.
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« Reply #12 on: December 11, 2016, 10:23:25 pm »

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both works have much to recommend them. Neither work gains in stature by disparagement of the other, in my view.

I agree. I enjoy them both.
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« Reply #13 on: December 12, 2016, 12:51:52 am »

the late Rachmaninoff masterpiece  

I can't agree that The Bells is a late Rachmaninoff work, surely?  It was written in 1913, prior to his departure from Russia. Sergey Rachmaninoff lived and worked a further 30 years after, dying in 1943. Although it may be true that - as he complained himself - he was more relished as a pianist than a composer in the USA, there is a great deal of music which he composed after The Bells.

Frankly I am staying out of the argument about "which is the better setting"...  it's a matter of taste, and both works have much to recommend them. Neither work gains in stature by disparagement of the other, in my view.

Interesting point.  I consider Rach's Bells late because it was 85% of the way through everything he would write though chronologically, it is mid period.  Anyway, suffice it to say I'm a big time fan and have never found Holbrooke memorable. 
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« Reply #14 on: December 12, 2016, 07:58:33 am »

Interesting point.  I consider Rach's Bells late because it was 85% of the way through everything he would write though chronologically, it is mid period.  Anyway, suffice it to say I'm a big time fan and have never found Holbrooke memorable. 

I see the point. Rachmaninoff scholars here in Russia consider everything he wrote before leaving Russia "early", since many aspects of his work (languages, genres, durations) changed fundamentally when he moved to America.
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