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Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Symphony No.1 in B minor Op.4 [35:58]
Symphony No.2 in A major Op.22 [22:28]
Variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky Op.35a (1894) [14:39]
State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
No recording details
SVET 001 03-1 [72:18]



Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Suite No. 1 in G minor (1885) [33:04]
Suite No.2 “Silhouettes” for symphony orchestra Op.23 (1892) [18:18]
Suite from the ballet Egyptian Nights Op.50a (1900-06) [22:18]
State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
No recording details
SVET 002 03-2 [73:49]



Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Suite No. 3 (Variations) in C major [29:51]
Fantasia “Marguerite Gautier” Op.9 [12:52]
Overture to Dream on the Volga (1891) [7:41]
Introduction to Raphael (1894) [6:49]
Introduction to the opera Nal and Damajanti (1903) [6:52]
Intermezzo in G minor for strings Op.13
March “To the Memory of Suvorov” in C minor [5:45]
State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
No recording details
SVET 003 03-3 [72:42]

Svetlanov’s “Anthology of Russian Symphonic Music” – a better and more felicitous translation than ”Symphony Music” which is how the Svetlanov Foundation has translated it into English – is a huge and valuable life work. The Foundation has released many discs devoted to his recordings of Arensky, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff among others. But recording details are generally sketchy in their releases and this is no exception. This is important because Svetlanov’s discography is not simple to get to grips with; he re-recorded a lot, with different orchestras over the decades, and to the studio releases we have also had access to concert performances and broadcasts.
I don’t think that there is anything new here; the Symphonies and the Overture to Dream on the Volga were once on Olympia OCD167 which had licensed the 1983 recordings from Melodiya LPs. They were also available elsewhere and the same seems to have been true of the balance of these recordings of the suites and other orchestral music, which the Foundation has now released on three well filled discs.
What is certainly true is Svetlanov’s generosity of musical spirit in these scores, his usual brassy control, those turns of eloquence and beauty that animate and illuminate the music and give it buoyancy and rhythmic zest. The First Symphony, reminiscent of Tchaikovsky in some ways, gets off to a rip-roaring start in this performance – and the high level recording adds its own immediacy to the brassy drama. The lyric-pastoral second movement however re-establishes an aura of burnish, with the distinctive sound of the very personalised and always eloquent State Academy [now ex but of course then still USSR State] principal clarinettist adding lustre. Svetlanov locates the succulent folkloric wit of the scherzo, with its admixture of balletic lightness, and drives home the finale with bold, masculine vivid gestures – it’s not the most tidy of performances but it has bucket loads of intensity. The Second Symphony begins in an altogether more leisurely fashion; there are even some Schubertian moments. And as ever Arensky shies away from a full-blown espressivo slow movement preferring a more loose and light patina, one Svetlanov explores with awareness and surety. The Intermezzo is pliant and attractive and whilst the finale has its superficial moments it’s full of brassy and convulsive playing. Svetlanov doesn’t omit taking the greatest care in Variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky – it’s richly moulded here; the variations unfolding with variety of texture, mood, tempo and dynamic care.
The G minor Suite is a charmer, a five movement work with a fugato feint – a little academic and predictable but worthwhile – and sporting a rather glorious Basso ostinato fourth movement that raises the roof with its sheer memorability. Its companion, No.2 Silhouettes, was originally composed as a suite for two pianos but orchestrally it has some equally grand gestures – each movement bears a suggestive title such as Scholar, Coquette, or Clown. The final movement, Dancer, has Iberian languor to it. The Suite from the ballet Egyptian Nights occupied Arensky until his early death. It sounds oddly English – or maybe such English music as it reminds one of actually sounds like Arensky; you get the similar odd feeling sometimes with Elgar and Glazunov. This is a cosmopolitan, Imperial, diverting but not especially probing piece. It has rich romanticism at its heart but the advertised moments – Dances for Ghazies, Jewish Girls and Slaves included - are very metropolitan affairs indeed, even a touch bourgeois. Charming, though.
The Third Suite is altogether more modern looking. Its theme is decidedly up-to-date and provokingly intelligent. There’s resplendent brass in the Triumphal March – ripely done here, of course – and it too sounds a touch Elgarian. There are some bully beef Baroque evocations, a deliciously light Scherzo and a powerful and unusually strong Funeral March; in the context it’s especially so. We hear the piano in the Chopin tribute Nocturne It’s a real hybrid suite, lacking consonance but highly rewarding. The Fantasia “Marguerite Gautier” is a rich and succulent affair full of warm expression. The excerpts from Arensky’s operatic works reveal his indebtedness to Wagner, maybe Strauss too, as well as more orthodox Russian models.
These three fine CDs contain bold, confidently etched Arensky performances captured in the expected up-front close-up. There are biographical notes in Russian English concerning Svetlanov’s life and the composer’s biography, written in fluid style and advancing thought-provoking connections, is by Rob Barnett of MusicWeb.   Arensky and Svetlanov admirers will love these performances.
Jonathan Woolf
And declaring his interest as the note contributor, Rob Barnett adds the following background prepared for the above discs but ultimately not used ...

Symphony No. 1 in B minor, Op. 4 [35.24]
Adagio - Allegro patetico; Andante pastorale con moto; Scherzo - Allegro con spirito; Finale - Allegro giocoso
Recorded in 1983
Symphony No. 2 in A major, Op. 22 [22:16]
Allegro giocoso\Romanza - Adagio ma non troppo; Intermezzo, Allegretto; Finale -  Allegro moderato
Recorded in 1983
Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky, Op. 35 [14:37]
Recorded in 1987

Symphony No. 1 (1883)
This was premiered in Moscow on 24 November 1883 conducted by the 22 year old composer who had just graduated with considerable honour. In 1882 the First Symphony of his younger compatriot, Alexander Glazunov had been premiered.
Commentators have referred to the similarities with parts of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique - a work lying ten years in the future. The work attracts criticism for its structural flaws. In fact it flows well and if the invention occasionally nods the overall effect is positive. Certainly it merits a place alongside the Borodin 1, the Kovalev and the two by Balakirev. The scherzo makes play with Arensky’s favourite 5/4 time. The finale uses folk material from Balakirev’s collection: a theme from a Spring dance and another from a song, My little plot of earth, sung by the Don boatmen. At least one commentator has pointed to similarities with Borodin’s own B minor symphony.
1883 was the year of Bruckner’s Symphony No 7; Brahms’ Symphony No 3; Dvořák’s Scherzo Capriccioso; Parry’s Symphony No 2, Cambridge; and Wolf’s Penthesilea, symphonic poem.
Apart Eduard Serov only Evgeny Svetlanov has taken up this Symphony.
Symphony No. 2 (1889)
The cyclical Symphony No. 2 contrasts with the First Symphony. While still in four movements (the first two linked) this is over in 22 minutes. The nostalgically shimmering second movement leads to an elegant Intermezzo. The finale is pleasing without being a canvas for extreme emotional conflicts. It is harmonically more wide-ranging than the First and it is not merely short but succinct. The first two movements are the most successful. Stravinsky’s Rimskian First Symphony might well be recalled by the first movement.
This work was premiered in Moscow on 21 December 1889 conducted by the composer.
1889 also saw Dvořák’s Symphony No 8; Parry’s Symphonies No 3, English and No 4; Janáček’s Six Lachian Dances; Macdowell’s Lamia, symphonic poem and Glazunov’s The Forest.  
Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky for string orchestra
While Tchaikovsky admired Arensky’s music, considering it graceful and lively, Arensky idolised Tchaikovsky and his works. It is the difference between cool affection and unqualified love.
Tchaikovsky wrote of Arensky that he “... is amazingly clever in music. The way he thinks everything over - thoroughly and correctly. He is a very interesting musical personality". In turn Arensky venerated Tchaikovsky’s advice .... even when it hurt.
Tchaikovsky was not uncritical of Arensky. He condemned his tendency towards the superficial and inconsequential. The pleasant conventionality of a typical Arensky work withers beside the radiance of melodic content and emotional extremes of a typical Tchaikovsky work. Also Tchaikovsky made no concessions when he noticed that Arensky had leaned on a Tchaikovsky hallmark - the use of 5/4 metre: “Pardon me if I force my advice upon you .... it seems to me that the mania for 5/4 time threatens to become a habit with you ...” (Tchaikovsky, Maidonovo, October 1885).
In Moscow Arensky met Tchaikovsky, who became his friend and mentor. Arensky returned to St. Petersburg in 1895 only a year after completing his Op. 35 string quartet. The work was written as an ‘in memoriam’ to Tchaikovsky. As such it traces its lineage back to Tchaikovsky’s own A minor Piano Trio which in turn was written in memory of Nikolai Rubinstein who had died in 1881.
The second movement of the quartet comprises seven variations on Tchaikovsky’s song, When Jesus Christ was still a child. Op. 54 No. 5 also known as Christ in His Garden. The end of the movement draws on ancient Russian chant. The finale uses the Russian hymn Slava Bogu no nebe Slava.
Arensky’s Tchaikovsky Variations are an arrangement by the composer for full string orchestra of the middle movement of the Op. 35 quartet - the second of two. The movements of the string quartet from which the Variations are drawn are: 1. Moderato; 2. Variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky; 3. Finale.
Along with the D minor Piano Trio (the first of two; there is another in F minor from 1906), the Variations have done much to keep Arensky’s name alive. For example, they were often played at the Queen’s Hall in London by Sir Henry Wood during the 1920s.
Arensky’s Variations have been recorded by many other distinguished conductors including Mark Ermler, Antal Dorati, Saulius Sondeckis, Valery Polyansky, Johannes Somary and Sir John Barbirolli. They make an aptly complementary companion to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings complete with echoes and pre-echoes of Grieg’s Holberg Suite and Sibelius’s Valse Triste.
© Rob Barnett, June 2004

Suite No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7 [32:52]
Variations on a Russian Theme; Air de Danse; Scherzo; Basso ostinato; March
Recorded in 1987
Suite No. 3 (Variations) in C major, Op. 33 [29:51]
Theme; Dialogue; Waltz; Triumphal March; Minuet (18th c.); Gavotte; Scherzo; Funeral March; Nocturne; Polonaise
Recorded in 1987
Overture from the opera Dream on the Volga, [7:37]
Recorded in 1983
March To the Memory of Suvorov in C minor [5:43]
Recorded in 1990
Suite No. 1
This five movement confection can be compared with the suites by Tchaikovsky and Glazunov. There is storminess here but of a type we associate with the black enchantment of The Nutcracker. This Tchaikovskian face alternates with brief glimpses of Rimskian oriental flavour. Indeed the Romance is a set of variations on a theme derived from an 1876 collection made by Rimsky-Korsakov.
It was this Suite that drew the famous letter from Tchaikovsky taking Arensky to task for use of 5/4 metre. Tchaikovsky even rewrote the Air de Danse in 3/4 as a corrective. This Suite No. 1 is not a transcription of the Suite No 1: Op. 15 which has only three movements: Romance; Valse; Polonaise.
Suite No. 3
On the other hand this is the same music as the two piano Suite No. 3 transcribed for orchestra. The suite is an extended set of variations hence the title. It is ambitious in scale. The work is dedicated ‘À Monsieur le Baron N. de Korff’. Arensky bends Baroque, Classical and Romantic forms to his will. The Waltz and March work very well. The periwigged musical box Minuet with pizzicato, piano, triangle and glockenspiel is a tour de force of light-as-down delicacy. The Nocturne for solo piano and orchestra is adroitly romantic in the Schumann pattern.
Son na Volge (A Dream on the Volga) Prelude Op. 16
Maestoso - Moderato assai - Allegro - Maestoso
A Dream on the Volga was Arensky’s first and most successful opera. This four act work was written in 1888 (the year of Rimsky’s Scheherazade and Russian Easter Festival Overture) and premiered at the Bolshoi on 2 January 1891 to considerable success.
The prelude to the opera is an atmospheric miniature in the manner of the Liadov vignettes by turns delicate and turbulent. It demonstrates a vigorous and fresh folksong-inflected approach as well as considerable skill in orchestration. The folksongs were said to be harmonised and developed with great skill.
Parts of this work were written in Rimsky’s composition class and in his memoirs Rimsky recalled that various numbers were composed “partly as volunteer work and partly as class assignment ... I vividly recall his playing, in the classroom, of the scene at the bridge, the cradle song, etc. ...” The song, Old Woman, Lulla, lulla for mezzo is occasionally presented in its own right.
The opera was based on the play by Muscovite Alexander Nikolaivich Ostrovsky (1823-1886), Many of his plays lampooned the pomposity of the Moscow merchant class. His works attracted Tchaikovsky. Grozd (The Tempest) drew a tone poem while Tchaikovsky also wrote an opera based on the same play that had caught the attention of Arensky. The comedy, Voivoda eeli Son na Volge (The Military Commander, or A dream on the Volga) inspired Tchaikovsky’s opera The Voyevoda. This is in three acts and four scenes. It was written in 1867-8 and premiered at the Bolshoi in January 1869 two decades before the Arensky work. The score was destroyed by Tchaikovsky in the 1870s and much of the first act was recycled into The Oprichnik (1870-72).
The Prelude has also been recorded in the days of the LP by Gennady Provatorov.
March - To the Memory of Suvorov
Field-Marshal Count Alexander Vasilievich Suvorov (1729-1800) was a ruthless and successful military commander. His renown was built on his defeat of the Turks. Such was his standing that the cadaverous hero was called out of retirement when Napoleon threatened Russia. His campaigns included Italian victories but pushed too far his army was defeated and he came back to St. Petersburg in disgrace dying not long afterwards. The march carries the marks of ponderous tragedy and glowing triumph - almost Waltonian at the close. The figure of Suvorov also inspired Muscovite composer, Sergey Vasilenko (1872-1956). Amongst his five symphonies (1906; 1913; 1925 The Italian; 1933 The Arctic; 1938) and many concertos there is a single grand opera called Suvorov after S. Krzhizhanovsky. It was written in 1941.
The March was recorded previously on 14 May 1973 by Rozhdestvensky who conducted the All-Union Radio and Television Orchestra. This was issued on Russian Revelation RV 10083.

© Rob Barnett, June 2005

Suite from the ballet Egyptian Nights, Op. 50a [21:19]
Overture; Dance of Arsinoe and Slaves; Dance of Jewish Girls; Dance of Ghazies; Snake-Charmer; Pas de deux. Waltz; Anthony's Solemn Entrance
Recorded in 1987
Silhouettes Suite No. 2 for Symphony Orchestra, Op. 23 [17:57]
1. Scholar; 2. Coquette; 3. Clown; 4. Dreamer; 5. Dancer.
Recorded in 1983
Intermezzo in G minor for Strings, Op. 13 [3:14]
Recorded in 1990
Fantasia on Themes of Ryabinin for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 48 [9:06]
Recorded in 1987
Marguerite Gautier, fantasia for orchestra, Op. 9 (1886) [12:21]
Recorded in 1990
Introduction to the opera Nal and Damayanti [6:44]
Recorded in 1999
Introduction to musical scenes from the Renaissance Raphael [6:43]
Recorded in 1990
Egyptian Nights suite
The plays of Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (1799-1837) have attracted many musical settings. Yevgeny Onegin, 1833 is the basis for Tchaikovsky's opera of the same name and for Prokofiev’s incidental music. Pikovaya Dama or The Queen of Spades or Pique Dame, 1834 became an opera by Tchaikovsky. Mednyi Vsadnik or The Bronze Horseman, 1837, was the basis for a ballet by Gliere. Kamenny Gost or The Stone Guest, 1839, was made into an opera by Dargomizhsky.
Pushkin’s monologue Yegipetskiye Nochi or Egyptian Nights dates from 1835 and was left incomplete on Pushkin’s death. Arensky’s one act and fifty minute ballet, loosely based on Pushkin, was composed in 1900 for Michel Fokine. This grandly Tchaikovskian ballet was premiered in St. Petersburg at the Maryinsky Theatre on 21 March 1908 two years after Arensky’s death. It had been commissioned for a visit to St Petersburg by the Shah of Persia but the visit failed to materialise. Arensky claimed to have included themes based on authentic Persian melodic material although the music is devoid of anything obviously exotic. The lead dancers for the premiere were Anna Pavlova and Pavel Gerdt. Vaclav Nijinsky danced a minor role in the same work. The ballet had gathered dust on a shelf at the Maryinsky Theatre for eight years after its composition.
Diaghilev did not like the piece but even so some of its numbers combined with those of Taneyev, Rimsky, Glinka and Glazunov gained performances under the title of Cléopatre and did well for Diaghilev in his "Russian Seasons" at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 2 June 1909. The costumes were by Leon Bakst. The lead dancers were Anna Pavlova, Vaclav Nijinsky, Ida Rubinstein, Michel Fokine, and Tamara Karsavina. By the time the plot had become a love affair between Cleopatra and her slave Amour.
A year later, capitalising on the Cleopatra success, Fokine and Diaghilev presented the world premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird at the Grand Opera in Paris on 25 June 1910. In the same programme there was another premiere much overshadowed by the Stravinsky. This was a piece called Les Orientales with music by Glazunov, Sinding, Grieg, Borodin and Arensky. Nijinsky and Karsavina were the lead dancers.
Egyptian Nights is in fourteen movements of which seven are included in the suite heard here. The full complement is: Overture No.1: Scene and Coquetry Dance No.2: Entry of Cleopatra and Scene No.3: Dance of Arsinoë and the Slaves No.4 (which has gained some currency as a piece in its own right): Dance of Berenice and Scene No.5: Poisoning Scene No.6: Dance of the Jewish Girls No.7: Snake-charmer: Dance of the Egyptian Girls No.8: Snake-charmer: Second Dance of Arsinoë No.9 Dance of the Ghazis Harp cadenza No.10: Tempo di valse No.11: Allegro moderato No.12: Solemn Entry of Antony No.13 Finale.
This was not the only Arensky work inspired by Pushkin. Apart from the songs there is also Arensky’s music to Pushkin’s The Fountain of the Bakhchisarai also set during the 1930s by Boris Asafiev as a ballet.
Arensky was not alone in being drawn to the Egyptian Nights theme. In 1933 Prokofiev composed some stage music for Alexander Tairov’s exotic conflation of Shakespeare, Shaw and Pushkin. This was premiered in a radio broadcast on 21 December 1934 in Moscow. The concert premiere came on 22 December 1938.
The Arensky Suite has also been recorded by conductors Dimitri Yablonsky and Boris Demchenko.
The Suite No. 2 (Silhouettes) has movements as follows: Le Savant; La Coquette; Polichinelle; Le Rêveur; La Danseuse. These character sketches feature a Beethovenian Savant with Stokowskian grandiloquence, a nonchalant Coquette, a chuckling somersaulting clown with more than a nod towards Glazunov, an Elgarian nostalgic Dreamer, and a rambunctiously Spanish Dancer. The third movement shares in its alternative French title the title of a character piano solo by Arensky’s pupil, Rachmaninov. This suite, in its format for two pianos, was a special favourite of the writer Leo Tolstoy who placed Arensky above all other Russian composers: "Of the new ones Arensky is the best. His music is simple and melodious".
The Suite has also been recorded by Neeme Järvi, Konstantin Ivanov, Nikolai Anosov, and Maxim Shostakovich.
Intermezzo in G minor for Strings
This isolated Intermezzo was dedicated to the Moscow Musical Circle. It bustles and flutters; in mood not a million miles from the snowy gales that ply the pine forests in Glazunov’s Winter.
Ryabinin Fantasia
Ivan Ryabinin was a Russian ethnomusicologist who assiduously collected a massive treasury of folk songs. He was a master of epic tales otherwise facts about him seem impossible to come by. Having once heard Ryabinin at a concert, Arensky was so impressed that he immediately began sketching out musical illustrations to the Ryabinin stories. Though not a professional pianist Arensky determined to perform his piano pieces himself. One of Arensky's pupils, the pianist Matvei Pressman (childhood friend of Rachmaninov and dedicatee of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata, 1914), recalled that although Arensky’s technique was clumsy he "managed to extract excellent sound". Arensky was the soloist at the premiere of the Ryabinin Fantasia. It is a flourishingly romantic movement which might well recall the Grieg Piano Concerto and the Second Piano Concerto of Saint-Saëns to some ears. Towards the close there is even a brief presentiment of Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto.
Marguerite Gautier
The inspiration for this Fantasia lies in the 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas (jr.) (1824-1895) - known as ‘Dumas fils’. The music moves from an evocation of the Bohemian bustle of Gautier’s life to a decidedly Tchaikovskian romantic wash and backwash. Dumas made his reputation with this story of a heroine prostitute giving up her lover rather than seeing him become a social outcast. The story echoes the real life tale of Rose Alphonsine Plessis. Rose later took another name, Marie Duplessis. In the Dumas novel she was Marguerite Gautier. In Verdi's opera, La Traviata, she became Violetta Valéry.
The story has a strong draw and has been filmed several times. Sarah Bernhardt, was filmed by Henri Pouctal and Paul Capellani in the first production. Then came various other versions in 1915, 1916, 1917 (with Theda Bara), and 1921 with Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino. Its most famous film version was Camille in 1936 directed by George Cukor and starring Robert Taylor and Greta Garbo.

Introduction to the opera Nal and Damayanti Op. 47
Andante sostenuto - Allegretto - Allegro moderato - Presto - Andante sostenuto - Allegretto

The German poet Rückert (whose verse inspired Mahler) initially had his successes with translations of Oriental poetry and of original poetry in the spirit of the Orient. In 1828 he translated Nal und Damayanti, an Indian tale and ten years later Rostem und Sohrab, eine Heldengeschichte. The latter may be known to some English listeners as the same tale used in Matthew Arnold’s narrative poem Sohrab and Rustum.
Arensky’s opera follows a version of the story by Vladimir Zhukhovsky. Nal'i Damayanti (Nal and Damayanti) from Indian legend was written in 1903. Its premiere was given at the Bolshoi on 22 January 1904. The music is highly picturesque, full of fantastic shimmering colour and somewhat Wagnerian perhaps not that far removed from Holst’s contemporary Sanskrit opera Sita. It is not especially exotic at least not in the way that Rimsky-Korsakov or Adolphe Biarent might have chosen to colour it.
The plot involves King Nal losing his empire in a game of dice played at the capital Naal Ka Tila. He is sent out into the jungle with his wife Damayanti. Racked with guilt at the hardship he has inflicted on Damayanti he leaves her in the hope that she will return to her parents. Nal wanders the jungle. Nal saves a huge snake who as it turns out is the deity Karkotak in disguise. The snake then helps Nal in a scheme to win back his realm and be reconciled with his consort.
Introduction to musical scenes from the Renaissance: Raphael
Raphael: Musical scenes from the Renaissance is the third and last of the Arensky operas. It was written in 1894 for the First Congress of Russian Artists and premiered at the Moscow Conservatory on 6 May 1894. St Petersburg saw a revival on 25 December 1895. The libretto is by A. Kryukov and tells the story of the Italian Renaissance artist, Rafael. The music is indebted to Tchaikovsky and rises to raw Manfred-like intensity. It is an extremely capable piece and deserves to be much better known. The whole opera, which is one act, was recorded by Melodiya in 1957 by V. Smirnov and the Moscow Radio Orchestra and Chorus (D 03502728). The part of Raphael Sancio is sung by a mezzo, Fornarina by a soprano and Kardinal Bibiena by a bass.
Much more recently it was recorded on Delos DE 3319 with Marina Domashenko, Tatiana Pavlovskaya, Alexander Vinogradov and Vsevolod Grivnov with the Spiritual Revival Choir of Russia and Philharmonia of Russia conducted by Constantin Orbelian. The same disc also included six of Arensky’s songs and Domashenko singing Zarema's aria from The Fountain of Bakhchisarai.
My heart throbs also known as Song of the Off-Stage Singer has regularly been excerpted as a tenor showpiece. There are recordings by Sergei Lemeshev, Leonid Sobinov (1868-1934) and, most recently, Vladimir Grishko.
The libretto, although only in Russian, can be found at the Karadar website.
© Rob Barnett, June 2005
Evgeny (or Yevgeny) Fyodorovich SVETLANOV was born in Moscow on 6 September 1928.
His father was a soloist in the Bolshoi. His mother née Kruglikova, was a singer and mime artist. She appeared as Tatyana in “Eugene Onegin” and as Cio-Cio San in “Madama Butterfly”. Both parents encouraged the young Svetlanov in his musical studies. He attended first at the Gnesin Music Institute graduating in 1951. There he had worked at composition with Mikhail Gnesin and at piano with Mariya Gurvich who, with Svetlanov, was later to contribute decisively to the Medtner revival in Russia.
The pianist Nina Moznaïm Svetlanova, remembered that during her years in the Gnesin School she played, for several years, in a piano duet with Svetlanov. “We played through almost the entire symphonic and operatic repertoire. In addition, our duet became well known among young Soviet composers. We were constantly asked to play the new compositions for the Officials of the Ministry of Culture. This was the only way, in those years, for the young composers to get approval for publishing.”
The young man then moved to the Moscow Conservatory where his composition tutor was Yuri Shaporin (whose great choral trilogy he was later to record). Alexander Gauk, the founder in 1936 of the USSRSO, was his professor of conducting. His piano professor was the great Heinrich Neuhaus.

As a student in 1953 he won a competition chaired by Alexander Melik-Pashayev and as a result conducted at the Bolshoi, first as assistant conductor, then becoming the orchestra’s principal in 1962. His first opera there was "The Maid of Pskov" by Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1953 he also conducted with the All-Union Radio. He took the orchestra to the stage of La Scala Milan in 1964 - an historic event.
Georgy Sviridov said of Svetlanov: "I think [that he was] created for the opera and it makes me sad that he has worked so little in this art. There can be no better conductor for the Russian opera. The Russian opera is a great and grandiose art. It includes dramatism and the national character".
Svetlanov was also a singer. He appeared at the Bolshoi at the age of three as the son of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Later he sang in the Bolshoi children's choir. To bring the life story full circle he conducted his last performance of Puccini’s opera in Montpellier just one month before his death.
In 1965 he was appointed principal conductor of the most prestigious orchestra in the Soviet Union, the USSR Symphony Orchestra. He had first conducted them in 1954. He stayed with them as their artistic director until 1999. That orchestra has been known since the end of the Soviet regime as the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and latterly as the Russian Federation Academic Symphony Orchestra. With them he recorded over a period of quarter of a century ‘The Anthology of Russian Music’. This Anthology, for the first time receiving sustained and systematic issue under this label, comprises the symphonic works of Glinka, Dargomizhsky, Balakirev, Liadov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Rachmaninov, Liapunov, Kalinnikov, Scriabin and Miaskovsky.

The USSR Symphony Orchestra was handsomely funded in those days with some 12 hours of rehearsal for familiar programmes and 18 for more challenging confections. His experience with European orchestras left him convinced that the rapid paced treadmill of concert after concert made for an oppressive workload.
Svetlanov bore the title of the USSR People's Artist awarded to him in 1968, the highest honour in the Soviet Union. He won the Lenin Prize in 1972 and the Order of Lenin in 1978. In 1998, Boris Yeltsin accorded him national birthday honours on his 70th birthday. He was however no cipher to the State. He helped those considered beyond the pale including violinist Oleg Kagan, cellist Natalia Gutman, pianist Nikolai Petrov, fellow conductors and outcasts Kirill Kondrashin and Veronika Dudarova. What is more he made no secret of his support for these artists. He was not a member of the Communist Party.
His inaugural tour of the UK was inauspiciously timed. It came in 1968 in the wake of the USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. At the start of his Royal Albert Hall concert there were shouted protests and disruption.
Since 1980, like Stokowski, he conducted without baton. He came to the view that the stick was an obstacle to communication. "The biological currents, the emanations are at my fingertips. The energy I receive from the orchestra is sent back by me. This forms a magnetic field.”
Svetlanov was well known for his interpretations of Russian works - he covered the whole range of Russian music from Glinka to the latest works. The works of Shostakovich, Shaporin, Prokofiev, Shchedrin, Knipper, Boiko, Shebalin, Khachaturian and Eshpai have also appeared on his programmes, recorded, live and broadcast.
However he has also recorded complete symphonic cycles by Mahler, Bruckner and Brahms. His programmes also included works by Richard Strauss, Bach, Debussy, Mozart and Bizet. He conducted a performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1981. And this was no one-off either. On 11 April 1977 at the Moscow State Conservatoire he had conducted USSR State Symphony Orchestra in the Elgar Second Symphony; a bruisingly emotional performance - almost another Manfred.
Svetlanov was also a composer and wrote symphonic, chamber, and vocal music, including a piano concerto, symphony and much else.
He was married to Russian soprano Larissa Avdeyeva with whom he recorded extensively including Elgar’s Sea Pictures. She appears in many of his other recordings including the glorious Shaporin choral trilogy ((1) On the Field of Kulikovo "Na pole Kulikovom", symphony-cantata, op.14; (2) Battle for the Russian Homeland "Skazaniye o bitve za Russkuyu zemlyu", oratorio, op. 17; (3) How Long Shall the Kite Fly? "Dokole korshunu kruzhit'" oratorio). The trilogy is much in need of revival as also is Shaporin’s 1933 Symphony.
Svetlanov was an idealist and was bewildered and sometimes angered by the timidity of audiences and concert managements. In the USA in 1986 he offered programmes that included Scriabin’s Second Symphony only to have them turned them down in favour of more familiar fare.
Russian orchestras were not his only collaborators. In 1979, he became principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and also worked with the Residentie Orchestra of the Hague. He was chief conductor between 1992 and 2000. He was to have conducted his own symphony in The Hague in May 2002. His final concert took place in London in April 2002
He also conducted and recorded with the Philharmonia including a Scheherazade and Glazunov’s The Seasons. He worked with the leading orchestras of Japan, France and Sweden. His Phono-Suecia recordings of the symphonic works of Nystroem (a superb recording of Sinfonia del Mare vying with the classic Westerberg) and Alfvén should not be overlooked. He often conducted the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Amongst his last concerts with them was an all-Chausson programme on 22 February 2002. It comprised: Poème for violin and orchestra, the Poème de l’amour et de la mer and the Symphony.
From the late 1980s, with Svetlanov conducting often for months outside Russia, he spent less time with his orchestra. In April 2000 Mikhail Shvydkoi, the Minister of Culture sacked him.
There were many facets to Svetlanov. He was a skilled pianist and in that capacity made several discs of music by Medtner for Russian Disc. He was also recorded as orator reading the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky, one of his favourite poets.
He was also a composer and his works have been issued on three Russian Disc CDs.
"In music, I am conservative". This is how Yevgeny Svetlanov describes his work. "Apparently, I am one of the last romantics. I want to have my soul, not only my head, involved in the music I perform.” Atonality held no attraction for him at all.
He tended to be a very distant personality so far as his players were concerned. However his technique was said to be very solidly grounded with extremely clear gestures. He was most at ease in Russian and used very little other languages. During the intermissions he would sit at the podium studying the score apparently impervious to anything going on around him.
Reminiscences at the time of his death recalled his great Tchaikovsky but also his advocacy of the rarer pieces including symphonies by Scriabin's (2 and 3), Miaskovsky (25), Taneyev (4), Glazunov (4 and 5), Balakirev and Bloch's Israel symphony.
A ‘biopic’ was made of his life in the Soviet film ‘Dirizhor’ (The Conductor) in 1973.
He died in his Moscow apartment at the age of 74 on 3 May 2002.
Alexander Vedernikov said of him: "A whole era has ended with him; there is no one who can exactly match his greatness. Yevgeny Svetlanov was so strikingly individual that some of his interpretations cannot simply be performed in any other way."
For a full account of Svetlanov’s life and works go to the Svetlanov website.
© Rob Barnett, June 2004
Russian Federation Academic Symphony Orchestra
The Russian Federation Academic Symphony Orchestra previously known as the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and before that as the USSR Symphony Orchestra is the leading Russian orchestra. It was founded during the early 1930s by a group of orchestral musicians headed by Alexander Gauk who together decided to jump ship from other Moscow-based orchestras. The new orchestra had its inaugural concert at the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in October 1936. A few months later it was on tour throughout the Soviet Union.
It has had five distinguished music directors: Alexander Gauk (1936-41), Nathan Rakhlin (1941- 45), Konstantin Ivanov (1946-65), Evgeny Svetlanov (1965-2000), and latterly Vassili Sinaisky. The composer-pianists Shostakovich, Khrennikov, Babajanyan and Shchedrin have each performed their own concertos with the orchestra.
The Orchestra’s first foreign tour took place in 1957. It was the first Soviet symphony orchestra to do this. Its first tour to the USA in 1960 reached its climax with a spectacular concert in Madison Square Gardens, New York.
© Rob Barnett, August 2004


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