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Sergei LIAPUNOV (1859-1924)
Symphony No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 66 (1917) [61.57]
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Evgeny Svetlanov
Rec. 27 Nov 1998, Salle Pleyel, Paris. DDD
NAÏVE CLASSIQUE V 4974 [61.57]

Liapunov studied composition with Tchaikovsky, Tanayev and most significantly with Balakirev whose Oriental piano fantasy Islamey he orchestrated most effectively. After the Revolution, which occurred in the year of the writing of this his last Symphony, he left Russia for good. He died in Paris of a heart-attack suffered while travelling to a concert at which he was to have performed.

There are two Liapunov symphonies both on a large scale. The first, also in B minor, is his Op. 12. It is from 1887, three decades before the Second. The composer was then 28 having graduated four years previously and made a place for himself in the artistic life of St Petersburg. The work is eclectic, at times recalling Rimsky-Korsakov with infusions from Borodin and Tchaikovsky. Liapunov bridges a style gulf in a way that no other Russian does. Tchaikovskians had little to do with the Kouchka and vice versa. Liapunov moves with natural ease from one camp to the other.

The Second Symphony’s epic scale and mood places it with few other works of that nodal and turbulent year, 1917. Perhaps the closest contemporary might be Josef Suk’s Ripening although the Liapunov has more drama and tragedy than in Suk’s reflective meditation. For a closer mood parallel we can reach for Miaskovsky’s Symphonies 4 and 5 - especially the Fifth from 1918. Beyond that we can look to much earlier symphonies: the Renaissance Symphony by Karlowicz (recently released on Chandos), Paderewski’s Symphony (on both Dux and Hyperion), Rachmaninov’s Second and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth.

The Second Symphony was not premiered until 1950 when it was played by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Svetlanov. He is therefore the closest thing we get to a performing tradition for the work. He certainly stamps his identity on the French radio orchestra in this live radio concert. Even the timbre of the orchestra is toned and sculpted to bring back the glory days of the USSR Symphony Orchestra. While the strings lack that intense Soviet glare the brass bray with satisfyingly raw passion and the woodwind have a piercing and poignant quality.

Liapunov’s Second is in four substantial movements of often super-heated emotionality. The first starts in shade with writing recalling Liszt's Faust Symphony. It reminisces around Rimsky, Tchaikovsky (especially Manfred), Scriabin (Symphony No. 1) and, most strikingly, Miaskovsky. An aspiring galloping figure, that is to reappear in all the succeeding movements, is the very archetype of the Miaskovsky theme and manner. At 7.30 the music certainly recalls Miaskovsky’s Symphony No. 5 (outstandingly recorded by the USSR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Konstantin Ivanov on a deleted Olympia OCD133). The movement is brought to a close with some smashing chordal impacts. After a Tchaikovskian scherzo the adagio (III) is all Rimskian luxury and folksy durability. There are more Tchaikovskian references (Romeo and Juliet) and it ends with the sweet troubadour tones of Hélène Collerette's violin solo - desolate yet sensitive. The finale reeks of Imperial grandeur (perhaps strange for the fateful year 1917 but then Liapunov never got on with the Communist insurgency). The mood is similar to that of the finales of Glazunov 5, 6 and especially 8. It is only in this movement that I had my doubts about Svetlanov’s choices. The music sometimes seems to limp along with rather laboured emphases but this does not take away from what is a most satisfyingly discursive epic symphony.

This is a concert performance as the odd cough here and there proves but the Paris audience is by no means as bronchial as some.

To fill out Liapunov’s orchestral picture you might like to try to track down two Olympia CDs. OCD 519 has Fedor Glushchenko conducting the Moscow State SO in the Ballade Op. 2 and the First Symphony (the Symphony given an impassioned performance - as stirring as that by Svetlanov in the present Naïve recording). OCD 129 has a good selection of Liapunov's shorter pieces. There is the Solemn Overture on Russian themes - monumentally grandiloquent in its final pages; Zelazowa Wola - poetic as befits its Chopin-based inspiration and Balakirev-inflected; Hashish - a major oriental tone poem; an exercise in freewheeling fantasy. It is more Borodin than Griffes; a tangy Polonaise and Liapunov's buzzingly Rimskian orchestration of his teacher, Balakirev's Islamey. The USSR SO are conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov.

With these three discs you have all the Liapunov orchestral works apart from the two piano concertos. If you have pretensions towards comprehensive representation you should also track down the Etudes d'Exécution Transcendante (à la mémoire de François Liszt). Either the Malcolm Binns (Pearl) or Shcherbakov (Marco Polo) versions will serve.

Do not let this epic late-late romantic symphony pass you by. In Svetlanov's hands it goes with a confident swing and broods with the intensity of vintage Tchaikovsky and Miaskovsky.

Rob Barnett

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