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MusicWeb International
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Rob Barnett
Editor in Chief
John Quinn
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Ralph Moore
   David Barker
Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb Founder
   Len Mullenger


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Evgeny SVETLANOV (1928-2002)
Symphony No.1 in B minor Op.13 (1956) [48:31]
Poem for violin and orchestra (in memory of David Oistrakh) [18:21] º
The Red Guelder-Rose – symphonic poem (in memory of Vasily Shukshin) [19:30]
Piano Concerto in C minor [21:11] ³
Preludes – symphonic reflections [22:44]
Daybreak in the Field – symphonic picture [5:53]
Three Russian Songs [9:20] ¹
Pictures of Spain – Rhapsody for large orchestra [16:55]
Rhapsody No.2 [15:54]
Russian Variations for harp and orchestra [13:31] ²
Daugava – symphonic poem [15:31]
Siberian Fantasy for large symphony orchestra [18:19]
State Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
Evgeny Svetlanov (piano)/USSR Radio and Television Large Symphony Orchestra/Maxim Shostakovich ³
Igor Oistrakh (violin) º
Raisa Bobrineva (soprano) ¹
Nadezhda Tolstaya (harp) ²
SVCO 001/4-004/4 [4 CDs: 66:59 + 63:40 + 61:51 + 33:54]

I’m not sure now who it was – it may have been the critic William Mann – but someone once referred to Svetlanov’s "Tsarist" tastes in composition. It was probably in relation to one of Svetlanov’s more populist numbers, doubtless one of the overtures, but at least Mann (or whoever) gave the conductor his due as a composer. This is an area that will probably come as a surprise to most people for whom Svetlanov means conductor and sometimes pianist. But he wrote a great deal in most forms – from operatic to symphonic to concertos and smaller-scaled compositions. Now, from his personal archive and superintended by his widow, Nina Nikolaeva Svetlanova, come four discs’ worth of Svetlanov’s compositions and allow us close scrutiny of those tastes, Tsarist or otherwise.

The mot juste is really Rachmaninovian. Svetlanov was a passionate, occasionally wayward but always warm interpreter of his compatriot. He seems to have taken Rachmainonoff as a compositional lodestar, though we can hear a number of other influences as well. Frustratingly only one of these works is dated with certainty – the 1956 Symphony – and there are unspecified recording dates which further muddies the waters, but the admirer of Svetlanov’s many, many recordings can wallow in these essentially late-Romantic works unimpeded by aesthetic straitjackets.

The Symphony is one of his best-known works and he promoted it in his concert touring, not always to the delight of promoters and agents. The predominant influences are Rachmaninovian lyricism, overlaid with Shostakovich-like march rhythms and a vein of Miaskovsky-like melancholy and occasional dynamism. There’s a film music aura to the light-footed scherzo and alternately portentous and becalmed warmth in the slow movement. The Shostakovich influence is most marked in the finale before we arrive at the bell-chime Mussorgskian triumphalism of the final measures. Coupled with the Symphony is the Poem, written in memory of David Oistrakh and played here by his son, Igor. It’s a sincere, heartfelt work, though not melodically especially distinctive and unbalanced by an overlong cadenza.

The symphonic poem The Red Guelder-Rose was another in memoriam work, this time for Vasily Shukshin. It opens with a certain wistfulness but a striking allegro section drives the music onwards. Svetlanov’s writing for solo cello is as assured as the pounding momentum he generates in the orchestral ranks. The vocal lines are alas untranslated. The Piano Concerto features Svetlanov as pianist and Maxim Shostakovich on the rostrum, the only such time that the composer is not present as conductorial protagonist. Once again it’s cast in rich, cantilevered romantic-Rachmaninovian style though it too becomes filmic in places. Cast in two movements and lasting twenty-one minutes we find the second movement straying strangely close, harmonically, to the Londonderry Air. Coincidence? The Preludes are lyric and warmly orchestrated – with roll-call hints of the Russian symphonic and orchestral tradition: Volga Boatmen, Arensky, Tchaikovsky. The vivo finale has musical-box sonorities – a Liadov tribute perhaps.

The third disc opens with Daybreak in the Field a "symphonic picture" and full of big brassy standard Russian blare, not least in this performance, with its admixture of cinematic musings. Svetlanov’s music was often used to accompany films or newsreels and he did write specifically for film, so it’s not entirely unexpected that this should be so strong a feature of his writing for symphonic forces. The Three Russian Songs are essentially homages to Rachmaninoff’s own songs - pleasant but not distinctive in any way. Pictures of Spain is an Iberian Rhapsody with a powerful role for the solo clarinet and elsewhere some unashamedly virtuosic old school panache for the band. Svetlanov really lets rip with Andalusian fire here, in a broadly Lalo-esque sort of way. Something has gone awry with the tracking at the end of the Serenada first movement – the music stops and then restarts before the concluding Jota [end of track 5]. The Rhapsody No.2 was his last composition and dedicated to the Bulgarian composer Pancho Vladigerov. Though Svetlanov seemingly tried to persuade officials in the broadcasting company that the melodies were derived from the Mediterranean and the Black Sea apparently it was clear to all that they were actually Jewish – hence the work was sidelined. It opens tersely but enlarges to include some sweeping arabesques from the clarinet, a favoured Svetlanov instrument from the sound of things, in which the klezmer hues are readily audible especially in the cadenza. There’s plenty to interest here – pawky dance rhythms, folkloric colour, roles for two solo violins and trumpet, and a lot of generated heat and excitement. This disc ends with the glittering Russian Variations for harp and orchestra – intensely romantic with sumptuous glissandi and some percussive knocks on the body of the instrument.

The final disc lasts about half an hour. Daugava – symphonic poem is almost defiantly old-fashioned – coursing with Lett folk themes, Tchaikovsky, bitingly blaring brass (of course) and skirling "School of 1905" strings. A touch of acerbity comes via Prokofiev but the Big Tune is defiantly Svetlanov’s own; a good one too. The Siberian Fantasy was co-written with Yakushenko. It has Miaskovsky-like nobility and gravity of utterance with an especially attractive mazy, meandering section complete with a prominent role for the solo violin.

This conspectus of Svetlanov the Composer is completed by a four-page essay – in Russian and English – by his widow, Nina. Things are vague when it comes to dates of composition and dates of performance but there are some nice anecdotes in the generally well-translated text. The cover picture shows Svetlanov in relaxed mood, soaking up the sun during an American tour and the set is a must for those who are inquisitive as to his prowess in the compositional field.

Jonathan Woolf

And a further view from Rob Barnett who declares his interest in acting as the Angliciser (not translator) of the booklet note:-

Most collectors know of Evgeny Svetlanov as a brilliant conductor although some have complained of a lack of subtlety in his readings. Very much a renaissance man in Soviet and world terms he not only conducted but was also pianist, singer, professional writer. His compendious Anthology of Russian Orchestral Music remains one of the world's most ambitious recorded music projects. It’s also one of the least sung and celebrated. So it will remain until there is a cased set no doubt running to several hundred CDs. It is however glimpsed in fragmentary splendour through issues by Regis, Warner, BMG and SCVO.

The present set is based on analogue recordings of performances conducted by the composer between 1954 and 1978. It showcases his creative talents. His style is conservative but his ideas are self-evidently freshly conceived and executed even if other composers are echoed. His music is always accessible. Dissonance has little place here. Dissonance is however employed in the horror-stricken sections of Red Guelder Rose (13:12). Other composers' names are invoked including Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Boiko and Tchaikovsky.

The Daugava symphonic poem is often grandiose and certainly dramatic. The driven section of this score must surely have been influenced by the cavalry charge scherzo section of Miaskovsky's Symphony No. 21. The Miaskovsky was of course recorded by Svetlanov in his complete set of all 27 of that composer's symphonies. The recording here betrays its black disc origins with some deep scuffing noises only evident on headphones.

The Siberian Fantasy was written collaboratively with Yevtushenko. It is more epic in mood than Daugava and also more poetic with memorable solos for the leader and saxophone. The quieter sections which predominate glitter and glimmer with the light of the Northern realms. The suggestion of desolation is softened by a folksy voice given edge by soulful melancholy.

The Red Guelder Rose is an even more poetic Symphonic Poem of great sentimental beauty - try 1:56 onwards. It is built around a memorable melody which remotely echoes the Dr Zhivago melody. We are then introduced to an aggressive theme reminiscent of the ruthless power-hungry scherzos of Shostakovich symphonies 10-12. This is topped off at 6.10 by a direct and baleful quote from Dies Irae. There is an eloquent solo for the principal cello then more silvery Borodin-style writing for strings with flute. This blossoms into a technicolor version of the theme. Lush strings and towering French Horns call out in all-conquering dialogue from one side of the orchestra to the other. The piece ends with a long romantically-crooned vocalise for soprano voice.

The Piano Concerto starts with a prominent, tender and touching solo for oboe. Then comes a sentimental solo by the piano soloist (here Svetlanov) with a Slav-tinged redolence of Macdowell. The curve of this 22 minute two-movement piano concerto is affected by a gorgeous melancholy - how could it escape?

Agreed that the Poem for violin and orchestra lacks a grippingly memorable melody but its atmosphere is a pleasure to soak up. The Symphony is all that Jonathan Woolf asserts. Do seek it out if you have any taste for the symphonies by Boiko, Khrennikov (No.1) and Miaskovsky (the later ones).

Many if not all these recordings have been issued before on Russian Disc but never as a uniform composite edition.

The recording quality can be coarse but it is never less than vivid. A taste for Soviet orchestral manners and timbre will also help the adventurous listener. There are many rewards in these performances and this music.

Rob Barnett


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