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Romantic Russia
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Ruslan and Ludmilla - Overture (1842) [4:58]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) arr. orch. Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Khovanschina - Prelude (1872) [4:59]
Night on the Bare Mountain (1866) [11:08]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887) arr. orch. Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908); and Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936) (overture)
Prince Igor - Overture (1875) [10:46]
Prince Igor - Polovtsian Dances (1875) [13:42]
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec. Kingsway Hall, January, February 1966. ADD
DECCA 476 5310 [46:02]

 

 

These legendary performances need little recommendation from me.  Indeed, in this Penguin/Decca cross-promotional livery, they are intended to be self-recommending.

Solti taped these performances with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1966, when it was not quite the pick of the London bands.  The Philharmonia still reigned, but the LSO's ranks bristled with talent, including Howard Snell and Denis Wick among the brass, Barry Tuckwell on French horn and - though I may be off by a year or so - Neville Marriner at the front desk of second violins.  All of these strong-willed musicians seemed to get on very well with Solti.  Two years before this recording this same partnership had set down one of the great Mahler Ones.  Many of the virtues of that magnificent performance are present in this all Russian programme.

Ruslan and Ludmilla's overture starts the disc like a shot of espresso.  Solti sets a mean pace, and by some miracle the orchestra manages to follow him.  The sheer speed and dexterity of those opening violin passages is breathtaking!  This is exhilaration made sound. 

After a dreamy taste of Khovanschina, in Rimsky-Korsakov's wash of orchestration, the Night on Bare Mountain  - again in the Rimsky-Korsakov version - is positively daemonic in its intensity, possibly the most exciting on disc.  These two contrasting Mussorgsky items illustrate what it is about Solti's approach in these recordings that makes them so successful.  In the mid-1960s, he was certainly full of fire and brimstone, but he still had the ability to draw back and deploy a sensitivity that was to elude him later in his career. 

The Borodin items that conclude the disc are also spectacular, with the ladies of the LSO Chorus sounding winning in the central Polovtsian dance, and the full might of the chorus, expertly trained by John Alldis, bringing the dances to a triumphant conclusion.  As with the Mussorgsky items, Rimsky-Korsakov's hand is audibly present here.  The overture, of course, is a testament to the musical memory of Glazunov, who reconstructed it having heard Borodin play it through on the piano.

Packed with pace and brio, these performances belong in every collection.  If you do not own them, then you need to acquire them.  But wait; a word before you go. 

Like many of the great performances, these have had a long life on disc.  I first acquired them on a Belart CD (450 017-2), which was released in 1993.  They also surfaced on Decca's Ovation imprint (417 723-2), in harness with a mediocre Chicago/Solti Tchaikovsky 5.  A few years ago they were re-coupled for the Decca Legends series (460 977-2) with a fabulous performance of Tchaikovsky's second symphony, the 'Little Russian', with Solti conducting the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in fairly primitive, but clean stereo sound (see review).  That performance was a perfect disc mate and although the Paris orchestra could not match the LSO in tonal heft or lustre, they acquitted themselves admirably in a performance not unlike Maazel's with the Vienna Philharmonic (also on Decca), but more fresh, urgent and enjoyable to listen to.

Now the “Romantic Russia” programme has appeared again, shorn of any coupling and offering listeners a mere 46 minutes of music.  Very short shrift!  The swings and roundabouts of Universal Music's reissue policy are utterly befuddling.

The Decca Legends imprint is being deleted at the moment to make way for "The Originals", the Deutsche Grammophon badge that Universal is rolling out across its classical labels.  If you can find it before it disappears, the Decca Legends disc is the one to buy.  At the same price point as this Penguin Rosette disc, you will get more than 70 minutes of excellent music making.

Although I have heard the Decca Legends CD, I do not have a copy of my own and could not make an A/B comparison of the sound.  I remember being impressed with that earlier release, though, and A/B comparison between this Penguin Rosette reissue and my old Belart CD did not show much audible improvement.  To be honest, these performances, produced by John Culshaw, have always sounded pretty good, and even if this Rosette CD is a new remastering that supersedes the Decca Legends issue – there is nothing in the booklet to indicate that this is the case - I doubt that the improvement would change my recommendation.

Tim Perry 

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