Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 [25:00]
Sergei RACHMANINOV orch. RESPIGHI Two Études-Tableaux:
La Mer et les mouettes, Op. 39 No 2 [9:06]
La Foire Op. 33 No 4 [2:18]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) orch. RAVEL Pictures at an Exhibition [34:13]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. 28 October 1999, Royal Festival Hall, London. DDD
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4259-2 [70:56]

On this disc we have the bulk of a concert given by Svetlanov during a rare appearance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra - the item that’s omitted was a Prokofiev piano concerto. Svetlanov was particularly good in music from his native Russia and the music included here plays to his strengths.

The colourful nature of Ravel’s celebrated orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano work is brought out very well. Some may find the opening ‘Promenade’ a touch brisk - here it seems like a purposeful walk up to the front door of the gallery - but some of the characterisations that follow are very sharply edged, not least a sinister, grotesque ‘Gnomus’. ‘Bydlo’ plods lugubriously across the Steppes, rising to a potent climax and the portrait of ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’ is painted with a broad but effective brush, though the muted trumpet solo doesn’t sound to be perfectly tuned. Perhaps not surprisingly Svetlanov builds ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ to an imposing climax with a large church bell clanging most effectively. The very final chord, suitably gong-drenched, is unusually sustained; we’re definitely in the world of Boris Godunov here.

Not all is power and grandeur, however. Svetlanov leads a nicely turned account of ‘Tuileries’ while both ‘The Market at Limoges’ and ‘The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’ are lively. I’ve heard more subtle accounts of Pictures but I’ve also heard many that are nowhere near as involving. This is a successful and enjoyable reading of the work.

It’s good to hear Respighi’s inventive and sympathetic orchestrations of two of Rachmaninov’s piano Études-Tableaux - he orchestrated five of these pieces in all - and Svetlanov does them with affection and no little feeling.

But though Pictures at an Exhibition was positioned, presumably, as the climax to the concert I rather feel that the best comes first. I can’t recall hearing a better account than this present one of Rachmaninov’s brooding, intense tone poem, The Isle of the Dead. It’s an expansive reading but Svetlanov controls the performance masterfully and fully justifies his broad conception. In his booklet note Colin Anderson, who was present at the concert in question, refers to the performance as “daringly epic” and adds this: “This gripping London version - of implacable tread, lugubrious expression and darkness of tone - is unflinching in its emotionalism and dramatic sureness.” That says it all, really. I’d add only that the extended, impassioned climax is beautifully prepared and, when it arrives, is impressively sustained. For me this great performance, which possibly could not have been emulated under studio conditions, is worth the price of the disc.

Throughout the programme the BBC Symphony Orchestra responds to Svetlanov’s direction with commitment and intensity. The playing isn’t flawless - there are a few ragged edges caused, no doubt, by unfamiliarity with Svetlanov’s technique - but these small blemishes are scarcely noticeable when set against the sweep and the often-thrilling nature of the music making.

I hope that BBC Legends may now be able to negotiate the rights to issue, as a follow-up to this fine release, the performance that Svetlanov gave with the BBC Symphony of Rachmaninov’s The Bells in April 2002. That was his very last concert and by all accounts it was a very special performance. But, then, this present reading of The Isle of the Dead falls into the same category.

John Quinn