I suppose that weíre all well aware of the phenomenal
rise and rise of the Naxos "empire". Anybody who isnít should
ruffle their luxuriant tail-plumes, shake the sand out of their eyes,
and take a good look around. Of course, one of Naxosís more notable
achievements has been the general ruffling of the tail-plumes of the
great and the good of the industry. "Professional" reviewers
in particular, though Iíll grant you not every man-jack of them, have
tended to be less forgiving of shortcomings where the object of their
appraisal happens to be a Naxos disc. For instance, Iíve lost count
(well, I havenít actually counted, but you take my drift!) of
the number of times a reviewer has disdainfully dismissed a Naxos record
with something along the lines of, "With scarcely 50 minutesí of
music, this represents rather poor value", yet lets one of the
Big Boys off scot-free with "scarcely 40 minutesí of music".
What really gets up their noses, as we all know, is
that Naxos has bucked the trend. Many people are buying Naxos CDs in
bucketloads, comparatively speaking - and those punters donít care tuppence
that the omniscient reviewers have panned the recordings (usually for
lacking that last micron of depth of insight). This might sound like
Iím saying, "Take no notice of me; if you fancy a bit of Liadov,
just go forth and buy". Well, Iím not. I only said "many",
not "all". Those that do care tuppence can gather round while
I tell you more. I promise to do my best to ignore completely the fact
that this is a Naxos issue!
One of the stalwarts of the label has been Keith Anderson,
whose reliable and informative sleeve-notes have graced so many issues.
This time, heís slipped a bit. Oh, heís still as informative as ever
- but the first two paragraphs (going on for half of the note) are somewhat
convoluted., nipping up and down the time-line like one of those perplexing
"flash back, flash forward" films. Once youíre over the dizziness,
you can always take it apart and re-assemble it in the right order.
I just wish that Keith had spared us the "free jigsaw puzzle".
None of the works on this disc is particularly long;
the longest clocks in at under nine minutes. There is a reason for that,
though itís hard to be sure exactly what that reason is. According to
the note, Liadov was at one time booted out of Rimsky-Korsakovís composition
class because of "unexcused absences". He also had a "tendency
to procrastinate", which came to a head in an event of priceless
proportion. Letís make no bones about it, Liadov was a very clever cookie.
Mussorgsky, no less, thought he was an "original Russian talent",
and even the hard-headed impresario Diaghilev was impressed enough to
offer him the juiciest of commissions - a ballet which was right up
the street of the composer of such toe-curlingly colourful tone poems
as Baba Yaga and The Enchanted Lake. "Howís it coming
on, Anatol me owd fruit?" Diaghilev would enquire (this version
has been transplanted to Darkest Yorkshire!). "Oh not sí bad, Serge,
tha knows," Anatol would reply, but would immediately come over
all coy about what heíd actually written thus far. Eventually, the posters
went up advertising the performance - but still no sign of any music.
Understandably, "our owd fruit" Serge was getting a mite fretful,
and enquired a bit more forcefully, "Nah then, weíar ií bluddy
Ďellís tí flaminí music, young feller me lad, eh?" Anatol was very
reassuring, "Itís cominí along a fair treat. Ah went owt and bowt
me seín some oí that there ruled paper this very morniní".
And so it came to pass that it was Igor Stravinsky who wrote the score
for the ballet The Firebird, and Anatol Liadov missed out on
what would have been the chance of a lifetime.
The really sad thing is that, hearing some of the music
- Kikimora in particular - on this CD, I canít help feeling what
a prize Liadovís Firebird would have been, had he ever got round
to writing it. At rock bottom, it would seem, he was a right lazy so-and-so.
But, to be fair, he was a busy lad in some ways, doing lots of teaching
and research. Also he married well, from the financial point of view.
Finally, he was one of those meticulous types, obsessed with getting
every musical "i" dotted and every musical "t" crossed,
honing and polishing his treasures endlessly. Of course, none of these
is exactly compatible with a high level of compositional productivity.
I mentioned this possibility to a friend more knowledgeable than me,
at least where Liadov was concerned. He said, fairly flatly, "No,
he was a lazy so-and-so." It would appear that it comes
down to a matter of money and choices, then.
Well, whether he was too busy or "busy doing nothing",
when he did get round to putting pen to paper his aural imagination
proved to be second to none. He had the same flair as Rimsky-Korsakov
for producing magically evocative colour by the simplest of means (no
mean feat, that!), yet he seemed curiously incapable of sustaining any
degree of consistency. Also, it seems to me, he had Balakirevís feeling
for line and structure - though this might have been more apparent if
heíd bothered to write anything with a decent bit of symphonic substance.
He had something of Mussorgskyís liking for the grotesque, though without
Modestís parallel predilection for more than a drop of the hard stuff
Liadov lacked the necessary bouts of delirium tremens to properly
feed grist to his mill. I could go on, but to put it in a nut-shell,
Liadov is probably the greatest "Might Have Been" that ever
graced the world of music. . .
. . . which makes the little he left us all the more
poignant, especially in those items that evince that unique Russian
melancholy, that Slavic equivalent of sehnsucht. Listening to
this CD I find myself weeping twice over, firstly at the finely-crafted,
brain-achingly evocative Liadov orchestral palette - as one who grew
up listening in slack-jawed amazement to Doratiís Mercury recording
of Rimsky-Korsakovís Le Coq díOr suite, I find all my middle-aged
nostalgia nerves going onto red alert - and secondly because Liadov
didnít devote every waking second to creating even more of this for
me to drool over!
The Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra may not be one of
your front-line, crack virtuoso bands, but they are pretty solid nonetheless
(anybody who can get through Havergal Brianís Gothic Symphony,
admittedly in tandem with the CSRSO, has to have a fairly tightly-gathered
bunch of wits!). More to the point, they are culturally near enough
to Liadov territory to have the right corpuscles coursing through their
veins. The conductor, Stephen Gunzenhauser, is a New Yorker, and hence
(dare I suggest?) culturally rather less adjacent. On the other hand,
he was at one time assistant to Leopold Stokowski and Igor Markevich,
so I think I can rest my case.
We can group the works on this CD as follows: Mazurka,
Polonaises (More or Less Straightforward Dances); Baba Yaga,
Kikimora, The Enchanted Lake, Nenie (Folklore-inspired Imagery, Grotesque
or Mystical); Intermezzo, Ballade (Orchestrated Piano Juvenilia).
That leaves the Fragment from the Apocalypse, which would have
fitted perfectly into the second group, apart from its source of inspiration
and its use of Russian Orthodox style chant "in modo" Russian
Easter Festival Overture, as it were (or even "so to speak").
Letís flip thorough them in order:
The dances are charming, tuneful, and relatively plain-baked
bread-and-butter pieces that out-stay their welcomes (probably
- unless of course youíre actually dancing to them). At first. They
do grow on you. And donít I know it. The two Polonaises are enough
of a muchness for me to suggest that you donít play them back to back.
In spite of their being delivered with bags of sprightly swagger, frankly
they arenít a patch on the supremely glittering specimen to be found
in Rimsky-Korsakovís Christmas Eve suite (Ansermetís mesmerising
Decca performance is a "must-hear"!). The Mazurka though,
is a right little belter - starting out on a perky piccolo solo (!),
it immediately catches you amiably by the nearest lug-hole, and proceeds
to treat you to a rollicking rondeau of tasty sweetmeats, toasted
to a turn by chef Gunzenhauser and served up with winning wit
by his trusty Slovaks.
I wonít mince my words: the "grotesques"
are brilliantly done. OK, maybe I could imagine sharper sforzandi
and a more generous body of sound, but they are full of authentic character
and the kind of menace that puts the fear of God into young kiddies
overdosing on Snow White. And, that character comes - at least
in part - from the lack of unnecessary upholstery in the orchestral
sound. The slow introduction to Kikimora in particular, with
its oily saxophone and shuddering, shivering string tremolandi,
tickles the age-ravaged vestiges of our childhood fright-bones. The
"Mysticals" are also presented with a sonic economy comparable
to utility furniture, so that the ever-shifting spectrum of instrumental
colours can weave its magic web with diaphanous strands of iridescent
silk. For some reason, we tend to think that clarity and mystery go
together like a Horse and Marriage, yet an impressionist-style mish-mash
of tangled silk is not the only way to impart that feeling of mystery,
is it? The same concentration on linear clarity also imparts a real
feeling of loss to the lament of Nenie.
The "Juvenilia" are fascinating in a different
way. These are both relatively early works, written for solo piano in
the 1880s, then orchestrated in the 1900s by the now far more mature
and knowing composer. The Intermezzo, with its skittering, jabbering
main theme, becomes a scintillating piece - superbly articulated by
the players - that could so easily have been a scherzo for a
symphony (I suppose, if we were feeling particularly generous, we might
entitle it Symphony No. 1 "Unfinished"). The Ballade
is a sort of Introduction and Allegro, making prominent use of
pianoforte and harp, and thus beating the Mahler of the Eighth Symphony
by a short head! There is also one of those yearning tunes that is playing
havoc with my melodic memory: Iíve heard it before, somewhere else,
but where? My guess is that itís one of those real folk
tunes, which has wormed its way into the psyche of the Russian nationalists.
The Fragment from the Apocalypse is something
else again. It sounds like film music, especially the first big crescendo
(starting at about 1'32). This erupts volcanically, blowing its top
in a mighty splash of tamtam - there are no punches pulled here! However
it is no more "film music" than the "night scene"
in the middle of the first movement of Mahlerís Seventh - years ago,
I played that to someone who proceeded to risk the integrity of his
head and torso by asking, "Hmm, not bad - but donít you think it
sounds a bit ĎHollywoodyí?" Well, he was genuinely surprised to
find that the music predated the Hollywood Era by some margin! Likewise
Liadovís piece, which was written in 1912 and if anything comes across
even more like a source of inspiration for a whole generation of Hollywood
film composers. This might have been Liadovís second-last orchestral
work (only Nenie was to follow), but there was no sign of his
talent waning. Gunzenhauser and the Slovaks again, possibly unwittingly,
capitalise on their paucity of padding, thereby enhancing the glistering
starkness of Liadovís vision, so strangely at odds with most of his
The recorded sound is both sympathetic and empathetic,
the former because it doesnít try to beef up the broth, and the latter
because it reinforces the approach of the performers. As Iíve suggested,
clarity is the order of the day. Liadovís "simplest of means"
demand that every line and layer in the sound be audible, and it is
to the credit of the engineers (as ever, named on the back) that they
are most judicious in their use of spot mics. Of course, in getting
things this clear - even the gruff articulations of the basses are sharply
etched, and the twinkling of the percussion at the opposite end of the
spectrum is an absolute joy (something that is increasingly rare, nowadays)
- it inevitably sounds a bit dry. But (how can I put this?), it is dry
where it needs to be, in the foreground: behind and around there
is an unobtrusive backdrop of ambient bloom. OK, I know that this is
an artifice, but it is very well judged, ensuring that sparkle and simmer
get an equal crack of the whip without recourse to any disconcerting
rejigging of sound balances between works. To my ears at least, this
serves Liadovís music admirably well, and thatís what matters.
Finally returning to that label, we are left with the
vexed question of Value For Money! How can I possibly recommend
this recording, when all they give you for your princely outlay of £4.99
are a measly 58 minutes of music? Do you really want me to answer that?
See also review by Terry