This collection will, for many, shed a new light on Yevgeny Svetlanov
– in the interests of more accurately representing the original
Russian spelling I have reinstated the ‘Y’ in the English transliteration
of his name which curiously disappeared from some sources many
years ago. Svetlanov was well known for his dynamic and exciting
conducting – he could even make quite dull works teem with life
– and some will have heard him as a pianist in his own Piano Concerto
and as accompanist in chamber music
These recordings, some of which have been available
sporadically in the past on a variety of labels including
Russian Disc, come from the private archive of Svetlanov’s
widow, Nina Svetlanova and date from between 1954 to 1978.
Annoyingly, the booklet is very badly annotated and we are
not told which recordings come from which year or even in
what year many of the works were written. The works on this
expansive four-CD collection date over twenty-nine years –
between 1949 and 1978. Svetlanov’s musical language was very
conservative indeed. Not knowing many of these works, I was
quite shocked at how derivative much of the music was. The
first work we are given is possibly the best known: the Symphony
No 1 in B-flat minor. Throughout the work one can clearly
hear strong echoes of Tchaikovsky, Rakhmaninov and Myaskovsky.
In the finale I thought someone had spliced-in a section of
Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony (2:28) – a work that was,
surprisingly, written six years later. Svetlanov’s symphony
is a big, sprawling work of some 48 minutes. It hangs together
rather well - it just sounds like so many other things. My
guess from the recording quality is that this recording dates
from the 1970s or early 1980s and, a little scrappy playing
apart, the work is given as committed and passionate a performance
as one could imagine.
Written a year after the legendary violinist’s
death in 1974, the Poem is dedicated to the memory
of David Oistrakh. David’s son Igor plays very touchingly.
The orchestral interludes in this piece are far too long and
I found my interest waning during what seemed to my ears ‘padding’.
This would have made a satisfying ten-minute work but it proved
a slightly tiresome eighteen for me.
The second CD opens with The Red Guelder-Rose
from 1975. This is a symphonic poem written in memory of another
great Russian artist who died in 1974 – the actor, writer
and director Vasily Shukshin (1929-1974), whom Svetlanov regarded
very highly. The musical echoes of Myaskovsky, Rakhmaninov
and Shostakovich loom large here as well – as does the plainchant
Dies irae, so beloved of Rakhmaninov. There is no indication
as to the words which are being sung by the off-stage voice
at 16:44, nor who the singer is. An online source suggests
it might be a certain A. Streltsenko, although this is a masculine
Russian name and the singer is most definitely female!
Maxim Shostakovich conducts and Svetlanov is the
soloist in the Piano Concerto. Full of folk song allusions
and reminders of Medtner, Rakhmaninov and Tchaikovsky, this
work would appeal to lovers of undemanding Romantic piano
concertos although, again, I found myself becoming exasperated
with its unoriginality and derivativeness.
The Preludes present some of the more original
music on this disc - indeed in this collection – although
Rakhmaninov gives way to Skryabin as the most obvious influence
in the first Prelude. The remaining movements are often
inspired by folk music and make for an entertaining if not
profound listening experience. The most substantial of the
six Preludes is the final Vivo, which seems
to act as final summing up of the previous five movements.
The third disc in this set opens with what turned
out to be one of my favourite works from this collection,
the symphonic picture Daybreak in the Field. It is
the earliest of the works in this collection, dating from
1949, presumably when Svetlanov was still a student. At just
under six minutes’ duration I found it a little short. In
style it reminded me very strongly of the fine but little-known
Soviet composer Yuri Shaporin (1887-1966), a composer whose
works would have been very familiar to the young Svetlanov
at the time of this composition and whose music he later championed.
Originating from just one year later, the Three
Russian Songs are pretty unremarkable, although idiomatically
sung by Raisa Bobrineva. Again, no texts are provided in the
booklet. Another relatively early work, the First Rhapsody,
Pictures of Spain from 1954 is very attractive and
a colourful addition to that genre of orchestral repertoire
influenced by the Iberian peninsula. The Serenada section
of the first part of this Rhapsody (from around 5:33) is beautifully
evocative, as if the composer imagined himself basking in
the Mediterranean sunshine. I have to say, however, that the
Spanish plains seem to give way to the Caucasus mountains
at 8:41 as the music becomes strongly reminiscent of Khachaturian.
I could also have done without the manically wayward castanets
at the end of the Serenada. A howler of a faulty edit
(done at CD master tape stage, I suspect) inserts a rogue
silence less than a second before the end of the Serenada
just before the Jota explodes into life. More Khachaturian
breaks through during the course of this music but everything
is enjoyable and very energetically played.
Svetlanov’s Second Rhapsody was his last work,
written in 1978 and is another of the composer’s memorial
works from the 1970s. It is dedicated to the Bulgarian composer
Pancho Vladigerov who died in September 1978. Vladigerov was
Jewish and the influence of Jewish and klezmer music
is to be heard through the Rhapsody, which did not endear
it to the Soviet authorities. It includes virtuosic cadenzas
for many instruments as Svetlanov wanted to show of the exceptional
skills of the solo players within the USSR Academic State
Symphony Orchestra as it was called at this time. A true klezmer
party breaks out at 11:40 during the whole orchestra is
given its head by Svetlanov, to blazing and triumphant effect.
The Russian Variations were written for
Svetlanov’s solo harpist in the orchestra, Nadezhda Tolstaya,
who is the soloist in this recording. The Variations
use all the usual harp techniques to good effect without every
straying into any territory too original or adventurous.
Obviously no original tape master could be located
for the first item on the fourth and last disc Daugava
as this transfer has obviously been taken from a rather bumpy
LP. The Daugava River originates in Russia, continues through
Belarus – the city of Vitebsk stands on it – and then enters
Latvia where it drains into the Gulf of Rīga and the
Baltic Sea. This symphonic poem is based on Latvian folk tunes
in a very liberal way and is full of Tchaikovskian colour
and flair – and a fair amount of noisy brass writing.
The final work is the Siberian Fantasy,
an early work that Svetlanov wrote together with the composer
Igor Yakushenko (b. 1932). This is also obviously taken from
a vinyl LP. Like Daugava, the Siberian Fantasy
will satisfy those yearning after that ‘old’ Russian orchestral
sound, the likes of which we will never hear again.
For those familiar with Svetlanov and his orchestra
of the 1960s and 1970s, this disc will be a welcome wallow
in the ripe, glorious and unique sound of the USSR Symphony
Orchestra. Recordings have generally cleaned up very well
and one is only occasionally aware of any distortion or congestion
of sound. Performances are never less than idiomatic and enthusiastic
and often they are downright brilliant. The music will appeal
to those who enjoy the post-Romantic styles of composers such
as Rakhmaninov and Myaskovsky and who don’t seek much hair-raising
originality. Svetlanov was never less than craftsmanlike and
was occasionally inspired in his colourful and imaginative
orchestral writing. However, there is almost nothing here
than won’t remind you of a myriad other pieces of music.
The booklet is disappointing. It relies far more
on anecdote than useful facts. Nina Nikolaeva-Svetlanova didn’t
even seem to know when most of these pieces were written,
requiring a good deal of internet research on my part to fill-in
the gaps. Not even the best sterling efforts of our very own
Rob Barnett could save these notes from a good deal of triviality.
by Jonathan Woolf