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Music of France
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1897) [10:26]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)

Symphony in D minor, Op.48 (1886-8) [35:16]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Prélude (arr. D. P. Perna) (1913/1994) [1:35]
Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn (arr. D. P. Perna) (1909/1994) [2:20]
Daphnis et Chloë: Suite No. 2 (1909/1913) [17:18]
Russian Federal Orchestra/Vakhtang Jordania
rec. Radio Palace Hall, Moscow, May 2000 and October 2004
ANGELOK CD-7753 [67:07]

It's quite a few years now since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Russian artists make regular and plentiful contact with the outside world - sometimes they seem practically to dominate New York's Metropolitan Opera! - so that Russian styles of playing and singing are, for better and for worse, coming increasingly to resemble those elsewhere. Apparently, however, no one's told the Russian engineers, who continue to record relatively close to the orchestra, spotlighting individual instruments on solo mikes. Essentially, they're applying analog techniques to digital equipment!

Thus, while the opening of this Sorcerer's Apprentice is suitably soft, the close pickup tends to dissipate the mysterious atmosphere - the clarinet phrases would be more effective at a bit of a distance. When the main theme arrives, the bassoon moves front and center for its solo. It was a kind of nostalgia trip for me, recalling the sound of Melodiya LPs; other listeners might find the dial-twirling annoying. Jordania's performance as such is fine, if not terribly subtle, with the final tutti cadence a bit of a scramble.

In Franck's introduction, the transitions are bumpy, and even idle listening catches a surprising number of splices - perhaps the sustained writing posed problems for the orchestra. Things pick up, figuratively and literally, at the Allegro: the tempi are brisk, in the modern manner - the development fairly hurtles along, and even the tutti canonic recap steps lively "in two" - yet the style is old-fashioned and portentous. The Allegretto is graceful if not quite elegant; here and there, the triplets are too rigidly fitted into the beat. Jordania again sets a good pace for the finale - no faster than most, though the players occasionally sound hard-pressed - but in the first part of the movement he seems not to have thought structural matters through. He leaves the transition into the second theme to fend for itself - which it can't, quite - and, after that theme, the following episode arrives unceremoniously - no setup, nothing. There are some good moments and details later: the big tutti recap at 5:23 is suitably triumphant, and Jordania plays up the agitation at 6:35 by stressing the violin figures, rather than the sustained winds outlining them.

The orchestrated versions of the two Ravel piano pieces are delicate and bittersweet. The Prélude, arranged for strings and harp, unexpectedly recalls early Debussy (and not just the Danses sacrée et profane); the Menuet, adding woodwinds and horn, echoes that from Ravel's own Le tombeau de Couperin. The Daphnis suite may just be the best performance on the disc, a few passing misco-ordinations aside. Daybreak unfolds with breadth, and here the players seem to relish the sustained writing; the flute playing in the extended Pantomime is shapely, with just enough edge to the timbre. The Danse génèrale, vigorous and propulsive, never turns heady and Dionysian, but it's capably discharged.

My occasional strictures about ensemble notwithstanding, the orchestra actually sounds rather good. The solid, unified strings betray none of the seediness heard from, say, the lower-tier Russian and Central Asian ensembles on Excelsior issues, while reeds and brass are firm and clear - no watery horns, pressured trumpets, or Donald Duck oboes. The tuttis, however, turn congested whenever the rolling percussion get going - a problem digital recording was supposed to eliminate, though it in fact rarely occurred in analog sources.

Stephen Francis Vasta


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