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Russian Spectacular Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Hamlet, Fantasy-Overture, Op. 67 (1888) [18:18]* Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857) Russlan and Ludmilla: Overture (1842) [5:17] Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov) A Night on the Bare Mountain (1867/86) [10:51] Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908) Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34 (1887) [15:31] Russian Easter Festival Overture, Op. 36 (1888)
[14:49] Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887) In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880) [6:17] Prince Igor: Overture (orch. Glazunov) (1869/87)
*London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. Free Trade Hall, Manchester, January 1988; *Barking
Town Hall, November 1974 CLASSICS
FOR PLEASURE 3822322 [81:26]
There's no "saving the best for last" here - the
best thing in CfP's program is the Hamlet overture that
opens it. The grave dignity with which Vernon Handley invests
the opening paragraph presages a reading that brings out
the full character of each episode, with a controlled intensity
in the turbulent passages. The oboe's "Ophelia" theme
(7:09) is conventionally plaintive here - Markevitch (Philips),
perhaps with Shakespeare in mind, adopts a more nervous
manner - but it's difficult to argue with the gracious
uplift of the love music proper at 8:32. Markevitch uses
the return of the agitated string figures at 16:17 to suggest
that the drama is winding down, which Handley misses, but
the latter's coda rounds things off convincingly. Save
for the slightly scrambled tutti outburst at 4:58,
the LPO plays handsomely, with full-bodied, vibrant tone,
and the recording is deeper and more forward than I had
remembered from the original LP. This definitely belongs
on the short list for this comparatively neglected tone
poem, alongside Markevitch, Stokowski (Everest) and the
heavier-handed Bernstein (Sony).
The rest of the program, recorded rather later, isn't quite as fetching.
The orchestral sound isn't as vivid or "present," except
in the brass: this might be a function of changes in recording
techniques and styles, but the difference more likely inheres
in the actual playing. The competent Hallé Orchestra lacks
the LPO's reserves of color and power, producing a compact
but comparatively homogeneous sonority. I also suspect
that the intervening thirteen years had tempered Handley's
youthful energy with a more circumspect moderation.
Such moderation isn't necessarily bad. At his best, the conductor's
no-nonsense musicality and avoidance of flash reminded
me of Eugene Ormandy's way with this repertoire. Thus,
in the Russlan and Ludmilla overture - sometimes
dismissed as a mere display vehicle - Handley's tempo allows
the strings a fighting chance at playing all the notes,
and gives the second, lyrical theme some room to breathe.
And A Night on the Bare Mountain, while less hair-raising
than some, benefits from his judicious balancing of forward
drive and rhythmic weight.
There are some lovely things in the Prince Igor overture as
well. Handley relaxes his basic tempo generously for the
horn theme, which sings expressively, with smooth if not
quite velvety tone, and the "hand-off" to the
flute at 3:56 matches perfectly. When this theme returns
at 8:36, however, one really misses the warmer LPO cello
sound, though the Hallé cellos are serene. And the recurring
brass "pyramids" aren't quite evenly balanced
throughout the range - the trumpets are weaker than the
trombones and tuba.
In the Russian Easter Overture, Handley keeps the higher textures
light and shimmery and inflects the themes with character.
But the performance as a whole seems restrained until he
steps up the tempo in the home stretch (13:33), when it
suddenly comes to life.
Elsewhere, more rigor was needed along with the moderation. Rhythmically,
the Capriccio espagnol is a bit loose and unemphatic
- firmer stressing would have elicited more of a strut
from the opening, and the last movement's dogged tutti-ish
progress becomes grim and unvaried. And In the Steppes
of Central Asia ambles along too casually: a bit more
breadth would have allowed for greater atmosphere and more
So what to do? If you're looking for Hamlet divorced from its
customary discmate - Francesca da Rimini, which
I find tiresome - this one is excellent, and the rest of
this admittedly generous program constitutes an attractive
listening sequence. You should turn elsewhere for the other
big overtures, however.
Ansermet's eloquent, glowing Prince Igor has recently reappeared
on an Eloquence reissue; it's also worth tracking down
Solti's Berlin account (Decca), where the peculiar mismatch
of conductor and orchestra strikes sparks. For the Russian
Easter, find Barenboim's Chicago version (DG).
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