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Two Boxes from the Svetlanov Anthology of Russian Symphony Music 
Nikolay Andreevich RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Svetlanov - Anthology of Russian Symphony Music (Rimsky-Korsakov Complete Orchestral Works)
Complete track-list at end of review
The State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. c. 1969-1993
SVET 57-009-1/6 [6 CDs: 67:03 + 63:19 + 70:03 + 76:16 + 58:51 + 72:37]  


Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Anatoly LIADOV (1855-1914)
Svetlanov - Anthology of Russian Symphony Music (Orchestral works by Borodin, Mussorgsky and Liadov)
Complete track-list at end of review
USSR Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. 1963-1983
SVET 10-14-5 [5 CDs: 76:04 + 76:22 + 75:15 + 75:53 + 62:07] 

Experience Classicsonline



Mixing my advertising metaphors right from the start, these two substantial boxes of CDs do exactly what they say on the tin and much like marmite you'll either love them or hate them. Having grown up with many of these performances on LP and in their earlier CD incarnations I have to say right from the outset I love them.

These two sets form part of the ongoing labour - clearly of love - by the conductor's widow, Nina-Nikolaeva Svetlanova to present to the CD buying public pretty much the entire recorded legacy of her husband. As such they are both historical documents and an artistic legacy of one man in tandem with a very particular and special orchestra. This is, in commercial terms, both the strength and potential weakness of this set. Melodiya-philes will turn to these much as I did as a way of bringing together so many thrillingly dynamic performances. Yet those same collectors are likely to have acquired many of these performances in other releases. For example, from the Rimsky-Korsakov box, the three Symphonies were released by Eurodisc as long ago as 1985 and Olympia (OCD 211 and OCD 227) contained many of the orchestral works and The Golden Cockerel suite. The two BMG 'Twofers' sets 'Orchestral Pictures from Russia' (74321 34165 2) and 'Russian Moods' (74321 34167 2) contain nearly all the Liadov, a fair chunk of the Mussorgsky and the Borodin except for the Symphonies which in any case have been separately released. Add to that confusion that the latest releases in the Warner/Svetlanov edition (Warner 2564698994) also feature a 5 disc 'complete orchestral works by Rimsky-Korsakov'. I have not seen the track-listing for that but it seems fair to assume that the performances are taken from the same sources.

The worst feature of these recordings is the supplied documentation. There is no recording information except for the umbrella information 'Rec: 1971 - 1993'. No venues, engineers, producers. Add to that liner-notes (by MusicWeb's own Rob Barnett) which are lucid and clear but brief to the point of terseness - the Borodin notes are omitted altogether! More surprisingly there is no biographical information on Svetlanov at all - given the number of these sets you would have thought a single informative note could have sufficed for all the issues. After all, this is first and foremost about Svetlanov and his approach to the music of Russian Nationalist and Romantic composers. Although his career started at the Bolshoi it was his appointment as Musical Director of the (then) USSR Symphony Orchestra that defined his career and in turn brought that orchestra to pre-eminence amongst Soviet ensembles - a fact that struck me time and again while listening to these discs is the consistency of the performing style. It is only with issues of engineering - more analogue hiss and a harsher, shallower recorded perspective characterising the earlier recordings - that allow one to guess at the age of the recording. Even the earliest performances display the viscerally exciting, extraordinarily dynamic interpretations that I love so much.

Before proceeding to the specifics of each disc, one last thought on the marketing of these sets; given that some of the performances are up to 45 years old it does strike me that to ask £7 per disc is too high for an average music-lover looking to add this music to their collection - Regis (RRC1145) contains a well-filled selection of these same performances of the opera orchestral excerpts and the Russian Easter Festival Overture for about £4.50.

So to the music; the Rimsky-Korsakov set consists of six generously filled discs which cover pretty much all of that composer's orchestral works as well as the excerpts from the operas (although its missing a Flight of the bumblebee). The 2nd Symphony 'Antar' is usually picked out as the best of the three but I have to say that all three receive performances show both power and conviction. Comparing the transfers with that of the Eurodisc version mentioned above they are identical - right down to the low level deep hum pervasive in the 3rd Symphony. The Melodiya 'house sound' so familiar to collectors is in evidence too - often closely miked with a relatively shallow sound-stage and a recording prone to harden at climaxes. For collectors on limited budgets the four disc set Brilliant Classics 99934 will catch the eye for being half the price while containing most of the same key repertoire. But to my ear the oft-praised Yondani Butt gabbles his way through this 3rd Symphony' leaving the LSO strings trailing some way behind. This example sets to rest one assumption often made about Svetlanov - that he would tear his way through music at a headlong pace - his reading runs at 38:00 compared to Butt's 30:00! But much as I enjoyed this they really do serve as the hors d'oeuvre to orchestral opera excerpts that make up the second half of the second disc. By his own admission Rimsky-Korsakov was most at home in the theatre and this is confirmed when listening to the music which comprises the bulk of CDs 2, 4-5 in this set. Listen to the Overture 'The Maid of Pskov' [CD1: track 5] for an object lesson in some of the most thrilling and committed orchestral playing you will ever hear. You'll know in an instant if this is for you. I cannot hear this without grinning from ear to ear - there is an extraordinary sense of release and joy in their mutual virtuosity here that quite literally makes my hair stand on end. Taking this as one example amongst many it is then really a case of dipping into this set almost at random. I sought out The Procession of the Nobles - Mlada [CD5: track 4] because this was the first version of this piece I ever heard - and it is as glorious as I remember. Brazen brass ringing out followed by the strings digging deep into their instruments as though their very lives depended on it. No other version I know comes even close to the sheer pageantry of this. But it would be quite wrong to think of this as some kind of nostalgia jaunt. I had never heard this version of Capriccio Espagnol [CD3: tracks 5 -9]. In fact I listened to it last as its one of my least favourite pieces by Rimsky-Korsakov. But not here - I thought this magnificent. The virtuoso playing is a given but in addition there was real personality in the solos here. I adore the old Soviet harp playing - you can almost hear the strings rebounding off the sound-board but as well as that here there is fantasy and flair to spare. Topped off by a perfect Svetlanov moment of theatre, the final Fandango [track 9] is taken at an ideally characterful yet steady tempo - the castanets able to clack and clatter delightfully yet come the final pages 2:45 - the tempo leaps ahead and then again at 3:15 dashing to the last bar with the players gleefully rising to the challenge with technique to spare. And so it goes on - further dipping brings one delight after another. CD6 (apart from the Russian Easter Festival Overture) contains relative rarities and whilst there are no lost masterpieces here what a joy to hear them in such idiomatic performances. There is one performance that disappointed and that is 'Scheherazade' [CD3: tracks 1-4]. The engineering is probably the crudest of the whole set and certainly things do not get off to a great start with the violin/seductress of the title sounding more like the aural equivalent of a soviet lady shot-putter than a timeless beauty. Svetlanov is uncharacteristically literal throughout the first movement and there is an air of the routine. As the performance progresses so the quality of every element improves. By the finale there is on display the blistering ensemble playing that this orchestra was renowned for - some of Rimsky's writing is positively cruel for the strings and the final climax (the storm and shipwreck) has power and excitement to spare. Of course there are many other fine versions of nearly everything recorded here - one thinks of Neeme Jävi's debut discs on Chandos with the SNO of the Operatic excerpts as one but this really is about Svetlanov and I for one will be reaching for this set from my shelves often.

Part of the reason for reviewing these two sets together is that all of the same values of performance, interpretation and engineering apply to the second box as much as it does to the Rimsky-Korsakov above. Although the other collection will appeal to completists and possibly more specialist collectors there are many surprises on offer here for those who seek them. More annotational issues plague the set - still no recording information (and the 'missing' Borodin notes mentioned above) but this now even extends to the fact that the back of the box does not list everything on the discs - a bit of a mistake since the average purchaser is going to pick up the set to see what is on it before purchasing. So from the box alone you would not realise that there is nearly all of the standard Borodin orchestral works here! Again comparing transfers shows them to be identical to previous incarnations of these performances. Svetlanov remade the Borodin Symphonies and Petite Suite for RCA Victor Red Seal in the 1990s but these recordings seem laboured and rather world-weary. Not so the performances in this set - for sure Borodin is an essentially lyrical composer able to write melodies that few but Tchaikovsky could equal but when needed his music has power and drama to spare. Svetlanov is good at bringing out both these qualities. The strings of the USSR Symphony Orchestra were always one of its chief glories and since many of Borodin's melodies are string-led they lend themselves to the impassioned saturated sound produced by the players here - the very opening of Symphony No.1 [CD1: track 1] is as good example as you'll need. Then in turn the brass can always be relied on to make the most of every opportunity to thrill and blaze. If I really had to choose just one version of these three symphonies I would probably have to opt for one of the best bargains to be had in Loris Tjeknavorian's exhilarating versions performed by the remarkable National Philharmonic Orchestra engineered by the legendary Kenneth Wilkinson on RCA Red Seal 82876-62321-2 but these performances run them as close a second as is possible. The second disc is filled by a good Petite Suite and enjoyable if not revelatory excerpts from Prince Igor. Again for all of these I would turn to Tjeknavorian with the NPO RCA 60535 (although this disc doubles the performance of the Symphony No.2). But if there are concerns about doubling up of repertoire the other three discs in this set remove that. I was not sure what to expect of the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition'. Written for Koussevitzky's Boston Symphony Orchestra this is a Slavic piece with a French slant. [see footnote] Don't approach this performance if you want it to sound like Solti in Chicago or Karajan in Berlin! Instead we have a performance which underlines the grotesque and disturbing elements that are present in many of the original pictures by Hartmann - the works that inspired Mussorgsky. The opening Promenade does not show the Soviet brass to best effect - watery and wavering but Gnomus (the Gnome) menaces and threatens to cinematic effect. Likewise, Bydlo builds to a overwhelmingly powerful climax before trundling away into the distance. Overall a fascinating version of a piece you thought you knew well. But the treasures of these two discs are the two song cycles. The Songs and Dances of Death' is in the orchestral version by Shostakovich and features the mezzo-soprano Irina Arkhipova recorded live. Not that this information is on or in the box - it just happens that this disc was originally released as Volume 43 of the original 'Anthology of Russian Symphony Music' and she is listed there. This is a very fine version and a fascinating take by Shostakovich. Arkhipova has all of the advantages of Slavic timbre, pronunciation and intensity without the dreaded wobble. It is more usual for this piece to be sung by a bass but I didn't miss it on this occasion so persuasive was her performance. Shostakovich also orchestrated Khovanshchina and one of the felicities of this set is being able to compare his version of that Opera's Prelude with the Rimsky-Korsakov version on the adjoining track [CD4: tracks 1-2]. The best analogy I can come up with is Shostakovich strips the picture back removing the grime of ages; Rimsky-Korsakov decorates the picture. On this same CD the USSRSO are in stunning form playing The Introduction & Polonaise to 'Boris Godunov' [track 6] but for me the real discovery was Svetlanov's own instrumental version of the song-cycle 'Sunless'. I have never heard this piece in any other version but I was struck by the subtlety and restraint of Svetlanov's arrangement. This sounds like the same live recorded source as the other cycle and certainly it is sung with superb musicality and control - for me the find of these two sets even though the recording here is technically one of the weakest with tape pre-echo and some congestion. Listen to Boredom [track 12] for an example of the beauty and fluidity of the music making here - storms of coughing not withstanding. The final disc is devoted to the effectively complete orchestral work of Anatoly Liadov. These works while full of charm and delightful touches are less substantial than much of the other music here. The miniature tone poems Baba Yaga and The Enchanted Lake are played with all the verve and power the previous ten discs would have led one to expect. The whole set is rounded off by the perfect orchestral bon-bon The Musical Snuff-box. 

In conclusion - in musical and performance terms for me an absolutely essential purchase for anyone who loves 19th century Russian music with versions of 'standard' repertoire that will enhance your knowledge and pleasure in those pieces. Whether or not collectors will want to duplicate either repertoire or performances to acquire these sets will limit the overall sales I suspect. I continue to marvel at the power and consistency of Svetlanov's approach and I love the response of the USSR Symphony Orchestra to him. All in all a magnificent legacy.

Nick Barnard

Comment received from a transplanted Bostonian now living in NY State

In Nick Barnard's review he mentions what appears to be a common misconception. Ravel did NOT orchestrate Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition for "Koussevitzky's Boston Symphony Orchestra". I have heard/read that statement/comment too many times to keep count. The orchestration was written in 1922, two years before Koussevitzky became Music Director of the BSO. Pierre Monteux was the BSO's Music Director at the time and I don't know if Koussevitzky was even thought of as the next Music Director at the time of the Ravel commission. It was, however, written at Koussevitzky's request (commission?) and premiered in Paris on October 19, 1922, conducted by Koussevitzky with/at his "Concerts Koussevitzky". The BSO made its first trips to Europe in the 1950's, conducted by Munch and Monteux (who had not been invited to conduct the BSO during Koussevitzky's 25 year reign in Boston).

Detailed Contents
Svetlanov - Anthology of Russian Symphony Music (Rimsky-Korsakov Complete Orchestral Works)
Tracklist
CD 1
Symphony No.1 in E-minor, Op.1 (second version) (1862-65) [31:24]
Antar, symphonic suite (Symphony No.2), Op.9 (1869) [35:39]
CD 2
Symphony No.3 in C major, Op.32 (second version) (1866) [38:41]
Overture to the opera "Bojarynja Vera Sheloga" (1898) [5:14]
Overture to the opera "The Maid of Pskov" (1873 revised 1892) [6:16]
Intermezzo ("The Maid of Pskov", act 1) (1873 revised 1892) [2:03]
Intermezzo ("The Maid of Pskov", act 2) (1873 revised 1892) [3:03]
In the Woods, Tsar's Hunting, Storm, musical picture ("The Maid of Pskov", act 3) (1873 revised 1892) [7:58]
CD 3
"Scheherazade", symphonic suite after 1001 Nights, Op.35 (1888) [44:56]
Capriccio Espagnol, Op.34 (1887) [18:08]
Fantasia on Serbian Themes, Op.6 (1887 revised 1887) [6:52]
CD 4
Suite from the opera "Pan Voyevoda", Op.59 (1903) [22:48]
Suite from the opera "Snow Maiden" (1880-81) [12:50]
Four musical pictures from the opera "Golden Cockerel" (1906-07) [29:57]
"Sadko", musical picture, Op.5 (1867) [10:46]
CD 5
Suite from the opera "The Tale of Tsar Saltan", Op.57 (1900) [20:07]
Procession of the Nobles from the opera-ballet "Mlada" (1892) [5:10]
Introduction to the opera "Golden Cockerel", Act 1 (1906-07) [4:47]
Procession from the opera "Golden Cockerel", Act 3 (1906-07) [3:46]
Introduction and symphonic picture from the 3rd Act of Opera "The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya" - Praise to the desert and Battle in Kerzhenets (1904) [7:51]
Introduction to the opera "Sadko" (1896) [2:33]
Introduction to the opera "May Night" (1878) [8:29]
Introduction to the opera "The Tsar's Bride" (1898) [6:10]
CD 6
Russian Overture on Three Russian Themes in D major, Op.28 (1880) [11:58]
Easter Festival Overture in D major, Op.36 (1887-88) [14:25]
"From Homer", prelude-cantata for soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto, women's choir and orchestra in E major, Op.60 [12;29]
"On the Tomb", prelude to the memory of M. Belyayev, Op.61 [4:22]
"Dubinushka", Op.62 (second version) [4:49]
Sinfonietta on Russian Themes in A minor, Op.31(1879-84) [24:37]

Svetlanov - Anthology of Russian Symphony Music (Borodin, Mussorgsky and Liadov Orchestral Works)
Tracklist
CD 1 [76:04]
Borodin:
Symphony No. 1 in E flat major (1862-67) [35:02]
Symphony No. 2 in B minor 'Heroic' (1869-76) [31:35]
In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880) [9:16]
CD 2 [76:22]
Borodin:
Symphony No. 3 in A minor (unfinished) (posthumous) [19:41]
Petite Suite (1885) [29:40]
Prince Igor - Overture (1869 - 1887) [10:21]
Polovtsian Dances (1869 - 1887) [10:59]
Polovtsian March (1869 - 1887) [5:33]
CD 3 [75:15]
Mussorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. M Ravel) (1874) [35:00]
Songs & Dances of Death (orch. D. Shostakovich) (1875-77) [19:04]
Golitsyn Train (Khovanshchina) (1872) [4:11]
Solemn March (Capture of Kars) (1880) [5:17]
Night on Bald Mountain (ed. Rimsky-Korsakov) (1867) [10:58]
CD 4 [75:53]
Mussorgsky
Dawn over the Moskva River - Khovanshchina (ed. Shostakovich) (1872) [6:28]
Dawn over the Moskva River - Khovanshchina (ed. Rimsky-Korsakov) (1872) [6:17]
Dance of the Persian Girls - Khovanshchina (1872) [7:16]
Introduction - Sorochinsky Fair (1874) [4:45]
Gopak - Sorochinsky Fair (1874) [1:47]
Introduction & Polonaise - Boris Godunov (1869) [6:40]
Scherzo in B flat minor (1858) [4:03]
Intermezzo in B minor (?) [8:04]
Sunless - song cycle (instrumentation by Svetlanov) (1874) [18:50]
The Destruction of Sennacherib (1867) [5:55]
Jesus Navinus (1874) [inc. in above]
CD 5 [62:07]
Liadov
From Apocalypse Op.66 (1910-1912) [8:50]
From Days of Old Op.21b (1890) [5:32]
Polonaise in C major Op.49 (1900) [7:37]
Polonaise in D major Op.55 (?) [4:32]
Baba-Yaga Op.56 (1904) [3:29]
The Enchanted Lake Op.62 (1909) [7:13]
Kikimora Op.63 (1910) [8:01]
Eight Russian Songs for Orchestra Op.58 (1906) [15:32]
Musical Snuff-Box Op.32 (1893) [2:19] 

 


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