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Nikolay Andreevich RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Evgeny Svetlanov - The Anthology of Russian Symphony Music
Complete track-listing at foot of this review
The State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. 1971-1993
SVET 57-009-1/6 [6 CDs: 67:03 + 63:19 + 70:03 + 76:16 + 58:51 + 72:37]

Experience Classicsonline

Svetlanov is one of those oft-mentioned conductors whose work seems to have passed me by. He certainly has his fans - see Nick Barnard’s detailed and enthusiastic review of this Rimsky set - so I was curious to hear what I’d been missing. This box is part of a project by the maestro’s widow to gather together all her husband’s recordings of Russian music for new generations to enjoy. Inevitably with anthologies such as this there is bound to be some chaff among the wheat, but how much?

CD 1
The first disc kicks off with Rimsky’s Symphony No 1 in E minor, written - with the help/intervention of Balakirev - while the composer was on a three-year cruise with the Russian navy. Billed as the ‘first Russian symphony’, it’s in the usual four movements, with an imposing Largo, followed by a lovely Andante underpinned by soft, but restless timps. This is the second version of the work (1884). in which Rimsky altered the key from E flat major, ostensibly to make the work easier for student and amateur ensembles; he also reversed the order of the Scherzo and Andante. It’s sturdy enough - the Scherzo is delightfully athletic - but despite some fine wind playing the Allegro strikes me as underpowered.

Rimsky’s Op. 9, the Antar symphonic suite, played here in its original version, has rather more colour and atmosphere than the E-minor symphony. Also, the recording sounds much more recent, albeit recorded at a rather low level. Antar is based on an Arabian tale, so it’s hardly surprising to hear hints of the exotic shimmer and rhythms of Scheherazade. Even though the gems in this Aladdin’s cave don’t sparkle nearly as much as they should do, Svetlanov never loses the sense of an unfolding narrative. That said, the second movement has some odd shifts in aural perspective, and I found myself longing for more bite to the brass and percussion.

One could argue that these low-key readings suit Svetlanov’s approach to this music as a whole - they are unhurried and unfussy - which is why listeners reared on more modern accounts may find these two performances rather short on excitement. One just has to sample the Kees Bakels/Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra recording of Antar (on a 4CD set, BIS-CD 1667/68) to realise just how monochromatic Svetlanov makes this music sound. Admittedly, the low-level transfers don’t help, but really these performances are of historical interest only. I certainly wouldn’t be in a hurry to hear them again.

CD 2
Given my lukewarm response to the first disc I approached the second with some trepidation. The C-major symphony is played here in its second version - and it shows in the muscularity and vigour of the writing. Happily, the recording level is higher, so fine detail is much more easily discerned; also, the horns ring out in a way that they haven’t thus far. Unusually, Rimsky opts for a Scherzo-Andante scheme here, which tends to heighten the contrast between the symphony’s first two movements. Puck may be at large in this playful Scherzo, but Svetlanov’s podium Prospero is very much in charge. I found myself longing for a little more give in the phrasing, a wish soon granted in the delicate Andante. This is lovely, tender music, and Svetlanov, usually the aristocrat, finally lets his guard down. Ensemble isn’t immaculate, but that matters less when the music is so gracefully played.

The rest of this disc is dedicated to operatic snippets. Rimsky’s overture to The Noblewoman Vera Sheloga is unremarkable. I’d guess this is another early recording, as the opening fanfares and closing bars sound rough and somewhat constricted. Ditto the striding, staccato brass in the overture to The Maid of Pskov, the off-cuts of which were used to make Vera Sheloga. There’s no shortage of energy and excitement here, but the crude recording rather lets the side down. The two intermezzi from this opera are much more immediate and more atmospheric, but Svetlanov is too unyielding for my tastes. I suppose it’s in the nature of these catch-all collections that bits and bobs will be used to fill each disc. It’s all very bitty, and I wonder just how many of these pieces will find wide appeal.

CD 3
Scheherazade, drawn from 1001 Arabian Nights, is a virtuoso piece that seldom fails to please. Certainly, those forbidding octaves at the start bode well, and the sound is reasonably spacious, too. The violin solo is sinuous enough, and the ebb and flow of the ‘sea motif’ is nicely managed. This is by far the most appealing performance on the set thus far, with a real sense of drama and plenty of exotic colour to boot. In the light of such felicities the distorted timps and wiry strings are less of a problem than they might otherwise be. ‘The Tale of the Kalendar Prince’ is wonderfully atmospheric, with its winding melodies and shimmering harps, although there’s neither the weight nor the splendour one hears on BIS’s up-to-the-minute digital recording.

I suppose one could characterise Svetlanov’s reading of Scheherazade as somewhat patrician, without undue flourish or vulgar embellishment; that’s refreshing, especially in the love music of ‘The Young Prince and The Young Princess’. The yearning violins at the start are beautifully captured, as are the soft string pizzicati, in what must be some of the loveliest music Rimsky ever wrote. For the first time in this collection I felt drawn into the musical narrative, entranced by the unfolding tale. But it’s the final movement, including the Baghdad festival and shipwreck, that really allows the orchestra to shine. The dance rhythms are well articulated, the brass is unanimous and the final bars are beautifully poised. Very impressive indeed.

On the subject of dances, those in Capriccio Espagnol are filtered through a Russian lens, so they lose a little something in translation. Svetlanov’s Variations seem somewhat leaden next to Bakels on BIS; indeed, this performance lacks rhythmic verve, and the shallow recording robs it of sparkle. Only in the Scena does Svetlanov make amends, with plenty of swing and some deliciously languid orchestral playing. At times I was reminded of Tchaikovsky’s exuberant Capriccio Italien, another hymn to Mediterranean warmth.. The Fandango is played with vigour and panache, too. And while the much earlier Fantasia on Serbian Themes may not be vintage Rimsky it does have some haunting tunes. The recording is more congenial too, climaxes expanding with ease and naturalness.

CD 4
The suite from Rimsky’s opera Pan Voyevoda - The Gentleman Governor - sounds like one of the very earliest recordings in this set. The opening bars of the Introduction sound distant and somewhat boxy, with a preponderance of treble. That said, this is engaging music, and in Bakels’ hands it flowers most beautifully. Not surprisingly, Svetlanov is superb in the krakowiak, mazurka and polonaise, the sheer energy of which helps to overcome the sonic limitations of this recording. It’s less easy to be forgiving about the nocturne, though, which sounds brittle and glassy. Not a performance I’d want to revisit in a hurry.

Moving on, the Introduction and Dance of the Birds from The Snow Maiden suite has plenty of colour, much of it muted by restricted dynamics. That said, there’s no denying the sprightly charm of Svetlanov’s readings. Tsar Berendey’s Procession boasts some splendid brass and cymbals, the final Dance of the Skomorokhi full of unbridled passion. Thankfully, the four episodes from The Golden Cockerel seem to have been recorded much more recently, offering vastly improved dynamics and detail. Tsar Dodon at home (tr. 10) has some of the loveliest playing on this set so far; just sample the hushed tune that flows from 4:44. The added orchestral weight makes a big difference in Wedding and lamentable end of Dodon (tr.12), which builds to a thumping finale. Now this is a reading I’d be happy to revisit. Ditto the ‘musical pictures’ from Sadko which, in Svetlanov’s hands, have rhythmic flair and drive aplenty.

CD 5
I am beginning to see why Svetlanov has such a devoted following. Indeed, my admiration only increased with his bold, brightly lit performance of the Tsar Saltan suite. Here the Russian cymbals spit and fizz in the most exhilarating way. And what a terrifying start to Act II (tr. 2), even though the treble sounds a trifle fierce at times. The bass drum makes a splendid noise at the start of the Introduction to Act IV (tr. 3), the brass suitably febrile at the close. This is Russian music - and music-making - at its very best. The Procession of the Nobles, from the opera-ballet Mlada, is equally impressive - what hair-raising cymbal clashes - as are the impossibly high trumpet blasts that usher in Act I of The Golden Cockerel (tr. 5). And the Act III procession has plenty of ceremonial swagger, with white-hot playing from start to finish.

Contrast that with the brooding sandscape - Praise to the desert - from The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya. There’s a pleasing amplitude to this reading, which brims with orchestral detail and boasts the most evocative, billowing harp playing I’ve heard in ages. Svetlanov makes the most of the Battle in Kerzhenets (tr. 8) which, unless my ears deceive me, was recorded much earlier than the previous excerpt. The Introduction to Sadko is wonderfully expansive though, and while May Night (tr: 10) evokes memories of summer lethargy it also has some alert, wide-awake playing from the strings and brass in particular. And although The Tsar’s Bride may sound a tad congested in the tuttis it’s still a splendid conclusion to a most rewarding disc.

CD 6
No self-respecting Rimsky collection would dare to omit the ‘lollipops’, but what of the less-well-known pieces, such as the Overture on three Russian Themes? It has an outward simplicity that is most endearing. It also seems to be one of the later recordings in this set, so the many felicities of Rimsky’s score are very much in evidence. Surely this is a piece that deserves more outings than it gets? No such problem with the Easter Festival Overture, which receives one of the best recordings in this box. The soundstage is deep and wide, the instrumental balance well nigh ideal, the trilling winds and trenchant bass equally well caught. Bakels is exciting but not particularly idiomatic, and it’s the latter quality - in abundance - that makes Svetlanov’s one of the most satisfying accounts of this work on record. 

From Homer is a prelude-cantata for soloists, women’s voices and orchestra. Rimsky admired Homer, whose epic Odyssey must surely have struck a chord with this one-time voyager. It’s not the composer at his most subtle; indeed, it’s more than a little bombastic at the outset, although the entry of the soloists comes as a welcome relief. The recording is one of the better ones here, the voices not too strident or unsteady. That said, the singers do sound a little pinched under pressure and they don’t always blend that well.

The next piece, On the Tomb, was written to mark the death of Mitrofan Belyayev, founder of the so-called ‘Belyayev circle’ of musicians. It has a gravitas and restraint that Svetlanov captures rather well, not to mention a noble peroration at the end. Not vintage Rimsky, perhaps, but well worth hearing nonetheless. Ditto Dubinushka - loosely translated as ‘little oak stick’ - which opens with a jaunty martial theme. The recording is full and weighty, the music superbly articulated throughout. The more transparent, chamber-like writing of the Sinfonietta surely reflects its origins in Rimsky’s string quartet of 1878. It’s not without weight, but the byword here seems to be detail. The sound is a touch bright - especially noticeable in the brass chords of the first movement.

I can only say this has been a worthwhile voyage. It wasn’t without its distractions and disappointments; the symphonies are among the latter, but perhaps that’s more to do with the music than Svetlanov’s performances. From disc 4 onwards I found much to enjoy, especially when the recordings allows Rimsky’s rainbow orchestrations to shine as they should. The Bakels set I mentioned earlier contains most of the music recorded here, all of it in fine digital sound. On the whole it’s well played but lacks the essential Russian flavour these pieces demand. Yes, I harped on about the variable sound quality in this Russian box, but if one accepts it’s a historical issue - where completeness is the key word - then that matters much less.

Svetlanov fans will probably own these discs already, but all lovers of Russian music in general - and Rimsky in particular - will find much to treasure in this box. Speaking of which, the cack-handed among you may struggle with the multiple trays in this jewel case. I certainly did, dropping the discs and pinching a few in the hinges. Basic notes and track listings are provided.

Dan Morgan

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

CD 1
Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op. 1 (second version, 1884) [31:24]
Antar, symphonic suite (Symphony No.2), Op. 9 (1869) [35:39]

CD 2
Symphony No.3 in C major, Op. 32 (second version, 1886) [38:41]
Overture to the opera Bojarynja Vera Sheloga (1898) [5:14]
Overture to the opera The Maid of Pskov (1873, revised 1892) [6:16]
Intermezzo Act I The Maid of Pskov (1873, revised 1892) [2:03]
Intermezzo Act II The Maid of Pskov (1873, revised 1892) [3:03]
Musical picture Act III The Maid of Pskov (1873, revised 1892) [7:58]

CD 3
Scheherazade, symphonic suite after 1001 Nights, Op. 35 (1888) [44:56]
Capriccio Espagnol, Op.34 (1887) [18:08]
Fantasia on Serbian Themes, Op.6 (1867, revised 1887) [6:52]

CD 4
Suite from the opera Pan Voyevoda, Op. 59 (1903) [22:48]
Suite from the opera The Snow Maiden (1880-1881) [12:50]
Four musical pictures from the opera The Golden Cockerel (1906-1907) [29:57]
Musical picture from the opera Sadko, Op. 5 (1867) [10:46]

CD 5
Suite from the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Op. 57 (1900) [20:07]
Procession of the Nobles from the opera-ballet Mlada (1892) [5:10]
Introduction to Act I The Golden Cockerel (1906-1907) [4:47]
Procession from Act III The Golden Cockerel (1906-1907) [3:46]
Introduction and symphonic picture from Act III of the opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (1904) [7:51]
Introduction to Sadko (1896) [2:33]
Introduction to the opera May Night (1878) [8:29]
Introduction to the opera The Tsar's Bride (1898) [6:10]

CD 6
Overture on Three Russian Themes in D major, Op. 28 (1880) [11:58]
Easter Festival Overture in D major, Op. 36 (1887-1888) [14:25]
From Homer, prelude-cantata for soprano, mezzo, alto, women's choir and orchestra, Op. 60 (1901) [12;29]
On the Tomb, prelude to the memory of M. P. Belyayev, Op. 61 (1904) [4:22]
Dubinushka, Op. 62 (second version, 1906) [4:49]
Sinfonietta on Russian Themes in A minor, Op.31 (1879-1884) [24:37] 


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