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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 [51’40"]
Peter TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32* [23’36"]
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Gennadi Rozhdestvensky
rec. Royal Albert Hall, London, 9 September 1971; *Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 9 September 1960 ADD
BBC LEGENDS 4163-2 [75’58"]

These two recorded performances, given by a nice coincidence eleven years apart to the day, show this great Russian orchestra on peak form and let us hear Gennadi Rozhdestvensky at his inspirational best.

As David Patmore points out in his interesting liner note, the 1960 visit to the Edinburgh Festival was the first visit to the UK by the Leningrad orchestra, then led by the legendary Evgeny Mravinsky (their celebrated DG recording of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth symphony was set down in London that same month.) At that time Rozhdestvensky was Mravinsky’s junior partner. The Edinburgh concert that Rozhdestvensky conducted, from which this Tchaikovsky performance is taken, also included a performance of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto with Rostropovich (available on BBC Legends BBCL 4143-2 review).

By the time of the Leningrad Philharmonic’s 1971 visit Rozhdestvensky was firmly established as a leading Soviet conductor and he directed all three of the orchestra’s appearances at the Henry Wood Promenade concerts. By happy coincidence the other work that they performed on 9 September 1971, a thrilling reading of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth symphony, is also available on the aforementioned BBC Legends disc.

The present Berlioz performance is a fine one. It does not, perhaps, have the same sort of subtle insights that Sir Colin Davis brings to the piece. Rozhdestvensky offers a different view, one which is overtly romantic and which revels in the colours of Berlioz’s amazingly imaginative scoring. His approach is aided significantly by some fabulously full toned and responsive playing from the Leningrad orchestra. The strings are wonderfully rich with great weight of tone and a superb bass foundation. The wind and brass are marvellously eloquent and the brass also have great power (sometimes unbridled just a bit too much!). The distinctive Russian brass timbre is evident but not overdone (I love it!)

Rozhdestvensky conveys the sweep of the score tremendously well. All the surges, hesitations and romantic yearnings in the first movement are played out to the full (but never overdone). This is a full-blooded, passionate reading and I enjoyed it greatly.

I felt that his tempo for the Ball scene was just a fraction too steady. The movement is beautifully played (silken, athletic violins) but to me the essential lilt just seems to be missing. By comparison, Sir Colin Davis, in his LSO Live recording, is just that crucial bit lighter on his feet and the music benefits hugely. One textual point: unless my ears deceive me, Rozhdestvensky, unlike Davis, omits the optional but important cornet part.

The scène aux champs is most evocative and atmospheric. There’s some outstanding wind playing to savour and yet again the strings ravish the listener’s ear. The march is taken very briskly indeed. In this performance it lasts 4’25" against Davis’s 7’01". It’s tremendously exciting but I feel that the weightier tempo adopted by Davis catches the menace that surely is at the heart of this music. This movement is one instance, I think, where the trumpets are allowed to dominate the texture too much.

The Witches’ Sabbath is suitably gothic and phantasmagorical – a real musical nightmare. The Leningrad account is a thunderous one and it’s no wonder that the Promenarders erupt at the end. Incidentally, I’m not one of those people that objects to applause after a live recording but I do think that nearly 40 seconds of ovation, as here, is a little too much.

This then is a ‘live’ Symphonie fantastique in the true sense of the word. The performance is full of life and colour. I didn’t agree with every single interpretative detail but that didn’t stop me enjoying and admiring this reading very much.

Francesca da Rimini receives a viscerally exciting performance. I think this is an underrated piece. When played with passion and conviction by a virtuoso conductor and orchestra, as here, it’s a tremendous work. Rozhdestvensky and his musicians play it for all it’s worth and the performance has terrific impact. In the outer sections the music boils volcanically while the central love music has great ardour (those Leningrad strings again!) The mono recording is closer and more "in your face" than that of the Berlioz (which is in stereo and pretty good) but it still wears its four decades pretty well. This Francesca is a performance in the Barbirolli/Stokowski class and in my book that’s as good as it gets. I’d love to hear these same forces in Manfred but I suppose that’s wishing for the moon, unless there’s a tape buried in an archive somewhere.

This is another winner from BBC Legends. The coupling works well, I think, and both pieces are played with panache and feeling. For an example of a virtuoso conductor and orchestra on top form this CD would be hard to beat. Very warmly recommended.

John Quinn

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