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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Symphony No. 1 (1866/97) [40.12]
Russia - Symphonic Poem (1864) [13.46]
Tamara - Symphonic Poem (1867-82) [21.07]
USSRSO/Evgeny Svetlanov
Rec. 1974 (Symphony); 1978 (Russia; Tamara) ADD
REGIS RECORDS RRC 1131 [75.07]

 

Balakirev's dedication to folk music and the exotic orient is well known. Both influences put in appearances to greater or lesser extents in all three works.

The First Symphony has attracted several celebrity recordings over the years. I have Karajan's and Beecham's EMI discs in mind. These two (often reissued) have tended to discourage competition until comparatively recently. I know the Beecham and rate it highly. I have not heard the Karajan/Philharmonia (mono). Beecham, with his Ballets Russes background sweeps the board but this Svetlanov is lingeringly seductive. The acid test is the oriental song of the third movement which foreshadows Rimsky's Antar and Sheherazade as well as the dashing light-as-down Scherzo. The other movements are equally elastic and responsive to the strange poetry of the Eastern Ďnever-never landí of a Thousand and One Nights.

Throughout these works Svetlanov blends steely control, foot-tapping rhythmic definition and a yielding way with melody. He also has the ineffable virtue of the sound of a 1970s vintage Russian orchestra: an edgy and weighty string choir, piercing trumpets (recorded unflinchingly without a momentís distortion - try 3.46 on tr.2), liquid horns (not as extreme as Golovanovís on the late-lamented Boheme label), lushly spotlit harp (12.40 tr.3), obsidian and lignite brass (6.01 tr.4) and peasant-toned woodwind (4.12 tr.5 in Russia).

Tamara predictably attracted Leon Bakst for production as a ballet. It has all the desired qualities. It is death-centred with large helpings of seduction, deceit, violence and eroticism. At over 21 minutes Tamara is both the most famous and most substantial of Balakirevís works. It was written after three trips to the Caucasus: 1862, 1863 and 1868 and was finished in 1882. The storyline is based on Mikhail Lermontovís tale of Tamara the temptress, half angel, half demon, who seduces passing travellers. After a night of orgiastic pleasure she then murders them and flings their bodies into the River Terek - rumbling like a malign Vltava in the first few moments and foreshadowing Sibeliusís Lemminkainen in Tuonela. The violence is vivid, but the most immediate impact is in the sensuous abandon woven into the gem of a main theme presented in swaying strings. Svetlanov gives free rein to every element of the fantasy - just listen to the side-drum accompanied dance. The work has a symphonic symmetry. It is not difficult to see it as a single movement symphony. The symphonic poem Russia (Rus) is quite low key, more a Russian rhapsody than a symphonic conception. It has its moments.

The Hyperion two CD set of the two symphonies is at mid-price (this may now have migrated to Helios in individual discs) and is attractive with recordings dating from the early 1980s. The Philharmonia conducted by Svetlanov have however opened the door to a certain languor and the timings for all the works are longer than those for this Regis disc.

If you donít know Balakirevís music then think in terms of the orchestral music of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov and you wonít go far wrong.

I hope that Regis will be able to negotiate licences from Gramzapis/CDK Music for the majority of Svetlanovís Russian Symphonic series - some of which were previously issued on Harmonia Mundi. This series includes his 1970s Tchaikovsky symphonies including a terrifying Manfred. If Regis are unable to license Svetlanovís complete Glazunov symphonies they would do well to examine the Fedoseyev cycle or the 1960s one-offs (3, 4, 5, 6, 8) by Boris Khaikin, Nathan Rakhlin or Konstantin Ivanov. Rozhdestvenskyís version of the symphonies, once to be had on Olympia, would not be the best choice. The Fedoseyev was available as a boxed set of Eurodisc LPs circa 1982.

Glowing performances of works imbued with magical fantasy superbly recorded in all their gaudy finery and transferred without degradation. What more could you reasonably ask? This is a staggering bargain in the same price range as the Naxos series.


Rob Barnett

 



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