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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Manfred Symphony in B minor op. 58 (1885) [60:40]
Romeo and Juliet – Overture-Fantasia (1869) [18:50]
State TV and Radio Grand Symphony Orchestra/Konstantin Symeonov
rec. 5 March 1960, Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, Moscow. ADD
Great Russian Conductors – vol. 6
VISTA VERA VVCD-00150 [79:33]
Experience Classicsonline

The Russian label Vista Vera - extensively surveyed by Jonathan Woolf - were good enough to send me a review copy of this disc. It is the sixth entry in their Great Conductors series.

I thought I knew my Russian conductors; at least those who had recorded. I had not heard of Symeonov. In this connection the notes by Mikhail Segelman are indispensable. Symeonov was a pupil of Alexander Gauk and was very active in Ukrainian Radio in the 1950s. This was after a not untypical spell in the wilderness when his times in a German POW camp and later in partisan activity reaped suspicion rather than reward. His name might be familiar to some DSCH fans as he conducts the soundtrack of the film of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

These recordings were taken down from a Moscow concert complete with audience. The Romeo and Juliet might easily have been a studio item as there are hardly any coughs or none that I noticed and none of the fussy active ambience so evident in this Manfred. Recording quality is 1960 radio broadcast standard. It's mono and frankly not bad mono - not bad at all. The signal is intrinsically strong, honest and unwavering. The balance at times sounds strange - such as the startling immediacy of the tambourine in the Bacchanale.

As a dedicated Tchaikovskian you have to hear this. It is also for those collectors and music-lovers who want to hear intense musical documents  of a moment in history. Take Mahler 9 with Walter and the VPO in Vienna, Mravinsky and the Leningrad Phil in Sibelius 7 in Moscow in 1965 or Beecham with the RPO in London for Sibelius 2 in 1954. This Manfred is in that company. Aficionados of the grainy virility of the Russian orchestra in full flood should also track this down. It is, in short, a great Manfred.

Symeonov is an expert builder of the symphonic arc. He has the epic trajectory in his blood and conveys this strongly. He takes thing slowly and constructs intensity with subtlety. When the climactic statements come they are overwhelming without being brutal. A sort of awed excitement is never far from the surface. Neither is the tenderness  of the third movement scouted over. The brass are heroically dominant yet disciplined. The performance 'feels' shaped and held in every way without any lack of spontaneity. There are some coughs and at least one volcanic sneeze as the climactic eruption of a sequence of bronchial action and predictably it comes during a quiet passage. But there is real vitality in this recording. The delicacy of the waterfall scene is not lost even if Tchaikovsky’s forces of inimical fate are never far away. In the best hands Manfred is in the same universe as the Fourth. In Symeonov on this date and time in Cold War Moscow it was in the right hands. No wonder Vista Vera tracked down the tape. It must have etched its experience into the history of every person who attended and of every listener to what must have been an extraordinary concert.

After Manfred, the very familiar Romeo and Juliet might have been a let-down. It is placed last on the disc though you can soon deal with that. In fact it's another glorious performance carefully built and unleashed. It does however have passion which is a prerequisite to Tchaikvsky's symphonic fantasia and to Shakespeare's play. As for tragedy – Tchaikovsky would not have touched the subject if the play had not been tragic. Again it's mono but again Tchaikovskians need to hear this for its excitement. Like the Manfred it's tender, yes, but not Hollywood lush. Symeonov does not disappoint.

These are fine performances and great in the case of Manfred. For me this is up there with the USSRSO/Svetlanov recording; just as feral but somehow with a more patent sense of the architecture of the piece. As for the Romeo and Juliet it joins the front ranks.

Rob Barnett


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