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.