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Nikolai RIMSKY- KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
‘Scheherazade’, Symphonic Suite after "1001 Nights", Op. 35 (1888) [48’52"]
‘Mlada’: Procession of the Nobles (1889) [4’59"]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)

Le Poème de l’extase, Op. 54* [20’00"]
London Symphony Orchestra
*USSR State Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov
Recorded in the Royal Festival Hall, London 21 February, 1978
*Royal Albert Hall, London, 22 August 1968
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4121-2 [74’12"]

I approached this CD with keen anticipation as Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002) was a noted interpreter of Russian music. Furthermore, here we can hear him working with two orchestras with whom he was closely associated. He was chief conductor of the USSR State Symphony Orchestra from 1965 to 2000 and from the 1970s onwards he appeared regularly with the LSO, becoming their principal guest conductor in 1979.

The main work offered here, Scheherazade, must have been meat and drink to Svetlanov, for it is full of colour and incident. He gets the LSO to play excellently for him and leader John Georgiadis spins a subtle and sensuous line in his solos. However, I should sound a word of warning that some listeners may find that some of Svetlanov’s tempi are a bit too broad. You’ll note that he takes nearly 49 minutes to play the work whereas Fritz Reiner takes 44’22", Beecham 45’36" and Sir Charles Mackerras in his 1990 reading with the LSO (Telarc) takes 44’47"

Good though it is, his performance seemed to me to be missing sometimes the sense of urgency and elemental power that one finds in Reiner’s great 1960 account for RCA with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This is especially true of the first movement which seems just a bit too broad though some listeners may well enjoy the extra weight. Also there were times when I wanted the extra bit of sparkle and wit that Beecham finds in the score in his 1957 EMI recording with the RPO. Compare, for instance, the phrasing in the infectious bassoon solo at the start of the second movement, ‘The Story of the Kalender Prince’(track 3). However, the final pages of that movement (track 3, from 9’58") are very delicately and atmospherically done here before Svetlanov whips up a final blaze to close the movement.

The strings have great warmth in the opening paragraphs of ‘The Young Prince and the Young Princess’ (track 4) although some listeners might feel that Svetlanov is just a touch too indulgent here (personally, I like it!) Later on in this movement there’s more first rate wind playing to enjoy; the LSO were on fine form that night! The finale has dash and purpose and, like the rest of the piece, is powerfully articulated and projected but I did feel that perhaps just a little more abandon would have made a good performance into a very good one. However, there is much to admire in the performance of the work as a whole and many collectors will relish the combination of a virtuoso British orchestra and a great Russian maestro

As it happened, the first time I played the disc I began with Scheherazade (which is the second item in the programme. Thus it was only later that I played the brief march from Mlada (track 1). This is a buoyant, glittering performance, full of life and colour and it makes a really infectious, bright and breezy curtain raiser.

The concert closes in splendid style too with an overwhelming account of Scriabin’s hedonistic tone poem. The Prom from which this performance emanates was something of a special occasion for unfortunate, non-musical reasons. It was the second of two Proms that Svetlanov and his band had given on consecutive evenings. The day before this concert (21 August) the Soviet army had rolled into Czechoslovakia amid great controversy. I’m sure that emotions were pretty raw in the Albert Hall on these two evenings and the Russians play here as if they had a point to prove. They give an overwhelming, intense account of Scriabin’s score. The performance may be a little lacking in subtlety but it has enormous power and vitality and at the end the audience reaction is wildly enthusiastic.

I must say that when I saw the contents of this CD I was a bit disappointed to find "yet another" Poem of Ecstasy on a BBC Legends CD – they already have at least two performances, both by Stokowski, in their catalogue. However, the impact of Svetlanov’s performance fully vindicates its inclusion in the series.

There’s a useful note about Svetlanov by David Patmore, of which French and German translations are offered, and the sound quality is good. This disc is a very good example of the work of a fine Russian conductor and I recommend it confidently.

John Quinn

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