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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 (1896) [47:25]
The Rock Op.7 (1893) [15:09]
CD 2
Symphony No. 2 (1907) [53:49]
Isle of the Dead Op.29 (1908) [20:24]
CD 3
Symphony No. 3 (1936) [38:03]
Symphonic Dances (1940) [35:04]
CD 4
Six Choruses for female voices and piano Op.15 [19:21]
Spring – cantata for baritone, chorus and orchestra Op.20 (1902) [17:51]
Aleko – opera (1892); excerpts – Introduction; Women’s Dance; Intermezzo; Men’s Dance [15:28]
CD 5
Bells – poem for symphony orchestra, chorus and soloists Op.35 (1910) [41:20]
Vocalise Op.34 No.14 (1915) transcribed by V Kin [8:56]
CD 6
Prince Rostislav (1891) [17:15]
Capriccio on Russian Themes (1894) [17:06]
Scherzo for Orchestra edited P Lamm (1887) [5:51]
Moments Musicaux (1896); Op.16 No.3 in B minor [8:42]: Op.16 No.5 in D flat major [4:23]
Vocalise Op.34 No.14 (1915) piano transcription by Evgeny Svetlanov [8:01]
Prelude in D major Op.23 No.4 [5:46]
Elegie Op.3 No.1 [6:55]
Evgeny Svetlanov (piano)
Alexei Maslennikov (tenor)
Galina Pisarenko (soprano)
Sergei Yakovenko (baritone)
Yurlov Russian Choir
Female Group of the USSR TV and Radio Large Chorus
USSR Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. undated performances [1954-89]
SVET 04981-6 [6 CDs: 62:27 + 74:23 + 72:55 + 52:40 + 50:13 + 73:58]
6CDs for the price of 4

This is a solid chunk of Svetlanov’s Rachmaninoff curated by the conductor’s widow and issued on Svet. The label is a splendid vehicle for The Anthology of Russian Symphony Music, part of Svetlanov’s life’s work and life’s blood, though as ever I think "Symphonic Music" would be a more accurate translation. And as before in this series things are unclear as to provenance – there are no dates or issue details.

There are actually some vocal works here as well as some solo piano performances by Svetlanov. The bulk of this big six CD set however is devoted to the undated traversals of Rachmaninoff’s orchestral music – and by and large mighty fine it is.

Volume 1 houses the First Symphony and the Rock. The Symphony gets a typically up-front recording in what I take to be the 1966 Melodiya performance that has done the rounds a few times. The winds are characteristically supple, the brass characteristically strident, the recording raw, the performance focused, vibrant and triumphant. I suppose it’s the visceral blare of the brass that most captures ones imagination but Svetlanov’s control of the first movement’s rhythmic tug and its unashamed fugato passage are both done with panache – so too the brittle brilliance of the percussion. Loamy and vigorous the second movement prefigures the tense terseness of the Larghetto as it alternates with the cradle of the wind passages. Stand back for the finale! Try the huge outburst at 10.00; powerful. The Rock is broodingly, hoodedly, craggily accomplished. It’s one minute slower than the much later Warner performance set down by Svetlanov but otherwise the conception is pretty much unchanged – we are never short-changed by Svetlanov in this work.

We now turn to the Second Symphony. Good news; it’s passionate. Bad news; it’s cut. Getting it in at just under fifty-four minutes means a lot of jettisoning. As with all the performances it’s ascribed to the USSR Symphony Orchestra but can I tentatively suggest it may be the 1968 Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra performance issued back in the late 90s on a Melodiya twofer. Whichever it is – and I don’t have the other disc to hand – it sounds suitably adrenalin-enriched but also, because of the slow movement and other cuts, somewhat perfunctory in places. Certainly next to Svetlanov’s "Last Testament" recording for French Warner which I recently reviewed it’s eclipsed. The Isle of the Dead gets a powerful, up-front recording and a brooding, predatory performance. Those USSR winds are tactile in the high wire acts and the brass lets fly with predictable stridency.

The third disc discloses the Third Symphony. This is a live performance and not to be confused with the tauter USSR Radio and TV Large Symphony Orchestra performance on BMG-Melodiya. This set’s one is more tensile and that much more dramatic but there is still the elegant dalliance of the flute to enchant us, the strings’ flight in the second movement and the tense stridency of the brass. The march of the finale is tightly beaten out and the miasma of brass calls is unveiled with seldom-rivalled tenacity. Sharing disc-space with the Symphony is the Symphonic Dances – which I’m taking to be a live 1968 performance. Svetlanov was always excellent in this work. Here he is again. Masculine, vivid, powerful, but relaxing sufficiently to allow those superb wind principals their moments – this is altogether a well-characterised reading. The dance rhythms of the slow movement are moulded with warmth and apposite direction and the tension of the finale is generated through rhythmic control and fine accenting. The ending is a pile driver. Applause is immediate. It doesn’t receive – and of course it shares this with many of these performances – the most warmly balanced of recordings but the visceral intensity of the playing, for me, overrides these concerns.

The Six Choruses for female voices and piano Op.15 are energetically done and well scaled. Spring is a cantata for baritone, chorus and orchestra and here Sergei Yakovenko takes the honours. He has gravitas, depth of tone, good pitching and a fine compass. The graphic, rather Mussorgkian tenor of the writing certainly brings out the declamatory in him, and in Rachmaninoff as well. Svetlanov whips up the climaxes grandly and the pre-figuring of the Second Symphony’s lyricism is especially vital and enjoyable.

Disc Five starts with the Bells in which the fulsome tenor Alexei Maslennikov serves notice of his own punchy and dynamic contribution, as indeed does soprano Galina Pisarenko; evocative and lacking any metallic edge. There is some beautiful string moulding in the Lento – for all one’s admiration of his power never underestimate Svetlanov’s finesse - and there’s just the right sense of gloom and reserve in the Lento lugubre that ends the work. Excellent all round. Vocalise is heard in the transcription by V Kin – which incorporates a strong brass role.

The final disc opens with Prince Rostislav, written too early to be really characteristic but which does already incorporate the sense of brooding tension that would be richly rewarding for Rachmaninoff in the years to come. The performance never seeks to inflate the writing; rightly it takes it at face value and the live Moscow performance is typically dramatic. The Capriccio on Russian Themes is brilliantly done – exciting and full of lovely themes, warm wind pointing, decidedly balletic in places and with a resplendent climax. The rest of the disc is given over to Svetlanov’s pianism. The two Moments Musicaux are well contrasted and etched with fervour by the pianist. He plays his own transcription of Vocalise and essays a fine Elegie. It’s rewarding to hear him in this role.

The notes are in Russian and English. They consist of an extract from Svetlanov’s writings – from his book Music Today – and a small commentary on Svetlanov and Rachmaninoff written by his widow Nina Nikolaeva-Svetlanov. As already noted there are no dates or locations provided. A few pointers from me though in the hope that these are correct; The Bells (recorded 1979) and Spring (1984) and the Klin-Vocalise (1973) are also on Regis RRC 1144. The Symphonic Dances (recorded 1986), Prince Rotislav and the Capriccio (1973) are on the same label; Regis RRC 1178. Moscow Studio Archives also issued these two on MOS 20005 adding Svetlanov’s piano performances of Vocalise, the Prelude Op.23/4, Moments musicaux Op 16/3 and 15/5. The First Symphony was recorded in 1966 and issued on BMG-Melodiya 74321 400642; if I’m right the Bolshoi Second was recorded in 1964 and issued on the same disc; the timings are almost identical (the Klin-Vocalise was also issued on this disc). If I’m wrong it could be the 1968 USSR performance issued on Moscow Studio Archives 20002.

Questions of attribution and raw recording quality apart – and apologies if I’ve inadvertently muddied any discographic waters – there are some stirring, magnificent performances housed in this six-disc box. You’ll want to augment the cut Second Symphony with the French Warner but otherwise this is a heroic slice of Svetlanov’s way with the composer.

Jonathan Woolf


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