Rachmaninov's score cries out for a big, ample, glossy recording. This is what you do not get here. The recording dates from 1963, and in those years Russian taping technology was still miles behind that of Westerners. Yet far be it from me to say the sound is unpleasant. There is air around the orchestra, no engineers' monkey tricks. You hear exactly what the tapes of the day could give you. But from a sheer sonic perspective, the recording is clearly limited. The best modern version with all the excitement of a splendid performance and brilliant sound is Polyanski's on Chandos.Rachmaninov: The Bells/Symphonic Dances
Having said this, as a performance this version by Kondrashin is probably unbeatable. From the first to the last note he lashes the orchestra to play as if the Devil was behind them. The virtuosity of the horns, especially in the final pages, is truly breath-taking, electrifying. Kondrashin sense of rhythm is astonishing in its infinite flexibility and variety. He doesn't stomp, but imposes an uncanny rubato on his players so that you are constantly surprised, even when familiar with the score. And I have to say that, having heard this twenty or more times, the excitement does not wear out. True genius like this can survive repetition.
To hear for yourself how this works, you might compare the opening of No. 3 with other recordings. Hushed, as if swept by the wind, goblins rush bye, until the whole string band suddenly brings us a velvety unisono that makes your hair stand on end. No other reading can match this sense of dark diablery, of something hidden that soon bursts out in the infamous Dies Irae. And there are many places like this in the work that apparently only Kondrashin noticed and manages to bring out.
I look upon The Bells as a filler. It is not as exciting; but I confess at once that I don't like the music much; it is so derivative and "standard Rachmaninov" that even Kondrashin can't marshal a similar excitement as in the Dances. But for me, the Dances are worth the price of the whole album.
Grab it while it's going. This is one of those recordings that make you grateful we invented microphones!