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Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Symphony no.1 in C major (1866) [39:56]
Symphonic poem Russia (1884) [13:38]
Overture on three Russian songs (undated) [8:18]
Symphony no.2 in D minor (1908) [35:21]
Symphonic poem In Bohemia (1905) [11:57]
Overture on the theme of a Spanish March (1857) [13:21]
Incidental music to Shakespeare’s King Lear (1905) [35:54]
Overture [11:33]
Procession [6:31]
Entr’acte to Act 2 [2:56]
Entr’acte to Act 3 [5:15]
Entr’acte to Act 4 [7:27]
Entr’acte to Act 5 [2:12]
Symphonic poem Tamara (1882) [21:07]
Suite in B minor (1908) [16:15]
Preambule [2:15]
Quasi valse [8:16]
Tarantella [5:44]
Suite in D minor of four pieces by F. Chopin (?) [22:28]
Preambule (etude) [5:09]
Mazurka [3:51]
Intermezzo (nocturne) [6:45]
Finale (scherzo) [6:43]
Oriental fantasia Islamey (orch. Lyapunov, 1916) [8:04]
Symphonic poem Zelazowa Wola , op.37 (?) [14:44]
Sergei LYAPUNOV (1859-1924)

Symphony no.1 in B minor, op.12 (1887) [39:01]
Oriental symphonic poem Hashish (1912) [24:27]
Symphony no.2 in B flat minor, op.66 (1917) [49:15]
Solemn overture on Russian themes, op.7 (1886) [15:34]
The State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. venue not specified, 1971-1993
THE ANTHOLOGY OF RUSSIAN SYMPHONY MUSIC SVET 04-006-1/6 [6 CDs: 62:03 + 60:51 + 57:13 + 61:49 + 63:38 + 64:59]

Experience Classicsonline

As admirers of Evgeny Svetlanov’s work will know, his discography is getting rather messy. The highest profile reissues are coming from the ongoing Warner Classics edition – generally good recordings but somewhat erratically issued and with some appallingly presented and proof-read booklets. In addition there are the discs, such as these under review, in The Anthology of Russian Symphony Music series (potentially comprising, according to Svetlanov himself, almost 2,000 recordings). And a number of somewhat spasmodic and less ambitious enterprises also seem to be under way (the enterprising Scribendum label, for example, has released several very interesting performances).

Of course, the fact that Svetlanov was an inveterate re-recorder and a man who kept a massive archive of recordings of his live performances considerably confuses the issue and makes it particularly important that the provenance of any performance on CD is made as clear as possible. Merely stating "recording 1971-1993 from Evgeny Svetlanov’s archives", as this issue does, is a real disservice to potential purchasers.

What it is possible to say, though, in spite of the woefully inadequate supporting documentation, is that the sound itself suggests that these performances originated from several different venues. Some audiences are prone to (winter?) coughing, while others keep relatively silent. Some tracks end in applause, while others are followed by complete silence. With that inconsistency noted, there is nevertheless a great deal to enjoy on these six discs, with some outstanding performances of rarely heard repertoire.

The first disc contains arguably the best-known of Balakirev’s works, his first symphony. Forty or so years ago, the old Penguin Guide to Bargain Discs (full of pseudonymous orchestras and conductors issued on long forgotten labels – Allegro, Fidelio, Saga, Wing and the rest) gave full marks to the Sir Thomas Beecham/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recording. In those days I would have loved to have heard its slow movement that the authors claimed had a Tin Pan Alley-worthy "big tune" but, as Beecham’s 1955 performance was on HMV Concert Classics and consequently priced at a whopping 21/6d., it was well beyond my schoolboy budget.

Listening to that recording now – and also to another much admired 1950 account from the Philharmonia Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan – Svetlanov’s individuality is obvious. It is not so much a question of mere tempi, for Beecham’s, both in that studio recording and in a 1956 BBC broadcast, are roughly similar (the odd one out is Karajan: first movement timings are Svetlanov 11:37, Beecham 11:45, and Karajan a staggering drawn out 15:05). The striking and consistent difference is that while Beecham and Karajan tend, in general, to "westernise" the music and smooth out its rough edges, the Russian positively emphasises them. Partly, of course, that reflects differences in orchestral playing: Soviet-era brass players were not famed for their subtlety. But one also suspects that the conductor, focused on his personal project of recording the complete orchestral output of his country’s composers of that era, would have gloried in emphasising any distinctive "Russian" elements in the music.

The rest of the first disc contains Balakirev’s other overtly "Russian" pieces so the approach, as you might expect, remains much the same. Russia is particularly successful, with buoyant, well sprung rhythms and very characterful playing from all sections (in this – as earlier at the climax of the first symphony’s slow movement – I was struck by the welcome prominence that Svetlanov gives his harpist, adding a real visceral thrill to the overall orchestral mix) but the more episodic Overture on three Russian songs is also thoroughly idiomatic and very well done indeed.

The major item on the second disc is Balakirev’s second symphony, a less inspired work than its predecessor and one that seems to lack spontaneity, with almost the air of an academic exercise about it. In spite of an introduction that makes us anticipate great things to come, the slow movement lacks the requisite "big tune". (Rimsky-Korsakov had the same problem: his third symphony seems almost monochrome after the kaleidoscopic colour of Antar). There are, though, frequent opportunities for the orchestra to demonstrate its skill - even in a relatively hopeless cause - and it rises successfully to them all as Svetlanov does his best with the score.

In Bohemia and the Overture on the theme of a Spanish march, filling out the second disc, both show the composer’s inspiration at a higher level. They are most competently and enjoyably performed. The magical opening of In Bohemia is beautifully shaped and executed and the rest goes with real aplomb, even though Bohemia is occasionally made to sound like Romanov - rather than Habsburg - territory! The overture that fills out the disc uses a Spanish - and clearly Moorish-influenced – theme as its basis but thereafter largely eschews those familiar clichés of rhythm and orchestration that, for instance, Rimsky –Korsakov exploited to the full in Capriccio espagnol. An enjoyable romp, it once again unfortunately lacks the final degree of memorability.

As we move, on the third disc, from Bohemia and Spain to mythical Ancient Britain with the incidental music to King Lear, so Balakirev’s musical idiom changes noticeably. The eponymous ruler, as depicted here, is most clearly not a Romanov, even though Svetlanov’s orchestra, with its distinctive Soviet timbre, seems occasionally to hint that he just might be a distant cousin. Apart from the quite substantial overture, a long "procession" that would take any actors around the stage at least a dozen times (and with, it has to be said, not the easiest of rhythms to process to) and the rather beautiful entr’acte to the fourth act, these are relatively inconsequential episodes – included by the conductor, I suspect, for historical completeness rather than real musical worth. The programmatic symphonic poem Tamara, on the other hand, is certainly worth recording (Beecham set it down at the same sessions when he recorded the first symphony in 1955) and here it receives a splendidly idiomatic and dramatic performance that encompasses all its many moods with great authority, if perhaps slightly marred by a particularly reverberant acoustic.

With the fourth disc – more Balakirev and a bit of Lyapunov – we are, apart from the well known Islamey, on less familiar ground. Balakirev’s B minor suite turns out to be pleasant enough, if somewhat lacking in any particular identity: the attractive Quasi valse (with the emphasis very much on the quasi) makes the strongest impact, though the concluding tarantella allows the composer to return to the sort of musical high jinks that was clearly one of his strengths. The D minor suite, a homage to Chopin, a composer much admired by Balakirev, is again easy enough on the ear (the scherzo finale works best) but mainly of interest to completists. It taxes neither Svetlanov nor his orchestra in the slightest but they pay it the complement of taking this rather inconsequential piece seriously and performing it well.

I have always preferred, I admit, Lyapunov’s orchestration of Islamey to Balakirev’s original – and fiendishly tricky - piano solo. Svetlanov’s performance here is stunning, making it a real virtuoso orchestral showpiece. From the urgent, fiercely buzzing strings of the opening, through the final but all too brief repetition of the "oriental" theme, complete with of blaring brass and thumping percussion, and on to the tremendously exciting final pages, this is all very much spot-on. The disc concludes with our first taste of Lyapunov’s own music, yet another tribute to Chopin. Zelazowa Wola was actually the Polish composer’s birthplace (Balakirev was instrumental in erecting a commemorative plaque there in 1894) and Lyapunov’s quite agreeable symphonic poem makes a well-orchestrated and sincere, if rather episodic, impression. But let’s not look this – typically well executed – rarity of a gift horse in the mouth.

The last two discs in this box set offer us the chance to hear more of Lyapunov, until quite recently a largely composer overlooked composer. My own shelves, which once only held Michael Ponti’s electrifying performance of the Rhapsody on Ukrainian themes, op.28, now positively bulge as they also accommodate both the BBC Philharmonic/Sinaisky and the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra/Glushchenko in the first symphony; the Orchestre Phlharmonique de Radio France/Svetlanov in the second symphony; Hamish Milne as soloist with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in the two piano concertos and another version of the op.28 Rhapsody; another recording of the second piano concerto, this time with Howard Shelley and the BBC Philharmonic/Sinaisky; the Ballade op.2 (Moscow State Symphony Orchestra/Glushchenko); and the Polonaise op.16 (BBC Philharmonic/Sinaisky).

On the fifth disc, the main course is provided by the symphony no.1, op.12. This, it must be conceded, is something of a curate’s egg: strikingly good in parts (another gloriously broad, swooning and swooping slow movement and a playfully skittish yet incisive scherzo) while sometimes quite bland. Even though Lyapunov was personally very close to Balakirev, it is Borodin’s influence that is most evident here (not an unusual phenomenon: for yet another example of Borodin’s pervasive influence, though rather further afield, seek out Belgian composer August De Boeck’s symphony in G). With Russian participation in all the versions of the Lyapunov first symphony that I have mentioned, a great deal will depend on exactly how Russian you like your music. If you are not averse to typically blaring brass, then Svetlanov’s fervent emotion in that glorious andante sostenuto and his sheer gusto as appropriate elsewhere would make his recording an excellent choice.

In a world where most political leaders (with the honourable exception of Barack Obama) deny ever inhaling, I wonder if it’s political correctness that has inhibited more performances or recordings of Lypunov’s "oriental symphonic poem" Hashish? It cannot be that the music is thought to lack interest. Reminiscent quite often of Scheherazade (at around the 10:00 mark you’d swear that you were listening to a discarded page from The young prince and the young princess), its somewhat episodic form clearly reflects Lyapunov’s intention to depict the random images produced by a drug-induced dream. I enjoyed this (for me) new discovery a great deal, especially in Svetlanov’s fervently idiomatic performance.

The box’s final disc is more Lyapunov, this time the symphony no.2, op.66 (of which Svetlanov himself gave the world premiere as late as 1951) and the Solemn overture on Russian themes, op.7. Some commentators have suggested that the symphony’s relatively sombre atmosphere reflects the period of its composition, for by 1917 the pre-war world had been utterly destroyed by three years of the First World War and Russia was about to see the introduction of a ruthless communist dictatorship. One can still hear the occasional flourish of Lyapunov’s old nationalistic style. But, in general – and specifically, too, in the striking opening movement and in the finale where elements of martial triumphalism sound forced and ultimately completely hollow – this is a darker score, a world away from the earlier close kinship that we noted with Balakirev or Borodin.

It is quite conceivable that any of the famous "mighty handful" – Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin – might actually have lived to see the Great War and the Russian Revolution. None of them, in fact, did so. But Lyapunov did – and perhaps we can look to his example to see the dramatic effect of those world catastrophes on a musician essentially of the old school.

It is a great shame that the second symphony has yet to receive as much attention as the first. It is certainly just as interesting – though in a very different way – and Svetlanov’s impassioned and persuasive advocacy makes the strongest impression.

The overall conception differs considerably, by the way, from Svetlanov’s later French radio recording (on the Naïve label V 4974). In this earlier Russian version he adopts far faster tempi in every movement, so that the overall timing for the whole work is 49:15 as against 62:54 for the French recording. Forced to choose, I’d say that, even though the slower tempi of the 1998 French version seems on paper more appropriate to the symphony’s "doom and gloom" scenario, I’d go for the dramatic urgency of the earlier interpretation coupled with the orchestra’s authentically raw Russian-ness.

The final item of the whole set, Lyapunov’s Solemn overture on Russian themes, returns us from the chaotic conditions of 1917 to an earlier, more certain and gentler age. It could, in truth, have been written by any of those late 19th century Russian composers who were so fascinated by their homeland’s folk music heritage, but that does not lessen its attractiveness one whit – especially when so convincingly performed as here.

So what of an overall judgement? As I have indicated, there is a great deal of music here that one might not want to listen to terribly often. But there are also some real discoveries to be made. A lot will depend, too, on your personal reaction to the sound typically made by a Soviet-era orchestra and, more specifically, by its unmistakeable brass section. If you can live with that – or if, like me, you positively revel in it – and if the repertoire interests you, then this very useful set of discs could well be right up your street.

Rob Maynard





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