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CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Variations on a Rococo Theme
Op.33 (1876) [18:47]
String Sextet in D minor Op.70 Souvenir de Florence (1890) [34:05]
The Tempest
- Symphonic Fantasy Op.18 (1873) [23:08]
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello); Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Gennadi Roshdestvensky (Variations) Borodin String Quartet with Mstislav Rostropovich and Genrikh Talalyan(?) (Sextet) USSR Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov (The Tempest)
REGIS RRC1348 [76:22]

Experience Classicsonline

Regis have proved to be astute trawlers of the back-catalogue previously and have helped restore to the catalogue several old favourite recordings. All three of the performances here are fine and characterful and one, Svetlanov’s The Tempest - could arguably be the finest ever performance put on disc. The only question for collectors will be the mixed-bag nature of the programme. At Regis’ bargain price this might well be worth considering if any of the repertoire plugs a hole in a collection. One disappointment cum frustration with this release is the lack of documentation of the performances. Regis have licensed this disc from CDK music and visiting their website only adds to the confusion. All of the performances are from the Soviet/Melodiya era with the Rococo Variations being the earliest, dating - apparently - from 1963. As one might expect from the partnership of Rostropovich and Rozhdestvensky this is a beautifully executed and character-etched performance full of gallant grace. By the nature of its title this is one of the least ‘Russian’ of Tchaikovsky’s works and that is how it sounds here, not the ‘soviet’ performance one might be expecting. As was normal at the time Rostropovich plays the edited/bowdlerised version of the score made by the first performer Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. For the date and the source, the recording comes up very well technically, obviously not demonstration by today’s standards but this is not a work that needs to cope with anything too acoustically epic. Rostropovich is nicely balanced towards the front of the sound-picture without being inflated as is the wont of some Soviet recordings. My relative coolness is more down to the fact that this is possibly my least favourite major work by Tchaikovsky but were a performance to encourage me to a more enthused response it might well be this one. It would be quite wrong of me not to mention the beautiful clarity and control of Rostropovich’s playing - try the opening of the Third Variation [track 1 5:00] where the cello sings with magical poignancy as he does at the opening of the Sixth Variation. It’s probably played more Adagio than the Andante marked in the score but with playing of this beauty that seems a petty point. Lovely neat playing from the Leningrad orchestra too with the detail and dynamics of the score scrupulously observed. Fabulous technical facility too from Rostropovich tossing off the flying demisemiquavers of the Coda with nonchalant ease.

The Souvenir of Florence remains one of this composer’s under-appreciated works. Yet it bursts with the same vigour and extraordinary melodic abundance of his finest and most popular works. Frustratingly neither the liner-note nor the Regis website - or CDK - tells us who the additional two players are accompanying the Borodin Quartet. I think, but am not certain, that this is the version with Rostropovich and Genrikh Talalyan playing the second cello and viola parts respectively. That version has turned up over the years on Melodiya, EMI and is still available from Chandos as part of the complete set of Tchaikovsky string quartets. I must admit to being just a little disappointed with this performance. The Borodin Quartet in the mid-sixties were without doubt one of the world’s great ensembles but I find this performance uneven. Tchaikovsky moderates the two outer movement Allegro markings with con spirito for the opening and Vivace - literally ‘lively’ - for the latter. In both cases I find the Borodins overly aggressive with the ending of the sextet in particular sounding rough rather than vibrant. But conversely, the dialogue between one of the cellos and violin in the second movement Adagio cantabile is of breathtaking beauty. Again, for its period the recording sounds reasonably well but the slightly edgy character of it compounds the pervading sense of excessive aggression. In many ways this is one of Tchaikovsky’s sunniest works. Without a shadow of a doubt Tchaikovsky was intent on stretching the scale of this nominally chamber work into something almost symphonic in scope. So it is not surprising that there have been various performances recorded by a large orchestral string section - a 1990 Naxos disc from Philippe Entremont and the nominal Vienna Chamber Orchestra was one of that label’s early successes. But I feel it is best in the original sextet form - my own favourite version is one from the Camerata Lysy on Claves which blazes with virtuosic energy and spirit. Next to that the Borodins seem too sober.

Generously Regis have filled out the disc with Svetlanov’s classic 1970 account of the early symphonic fantasy The Tempest. If you love your Tchaikovsky red in tooth and claw with the USSRSO galloping after Svetlanov into the abyss you will probably already have this in your collection. Again it’s a version that has appeared in many and varied couplings - my previous encounter is as a filler on the RCA ‘Twofer’ which included Manfred - and I see that CDK have released it as a coupling to the same performer’s version of the Symphony No.5. This really is Svetlanov in his element, maximising the drama of any given moment - the storm of the opening shipwreck is whipped up to an extraordinary frenzy [track 6 from 5:30]. Likewise, the love music of Miranda and Ferdinand is played with total commitment. In case you think Svetlanov could only go for the unsubtle and blatant in musical effect terms listen to the loving cello phrasing taken up by the violins around 10:00. Although this work is never likely to supplant Romeo and Juliet as the public’s favourite Shakespearean Overture in a performance like this you can’t help but wonder why not. Tchaikovsky’s particular genius in this form of narrative fantasy overture is the way he is able to bind the essence of the original narrative into a satisfying musical structure. An unmatched melodic gift and ear for music as drama also helps. Given the scale of the work and the dynamic range of the playing this recording does show its limitations. Curiously, I have always found that part of the drama enshrined here is the way the engineering cannot cope with the power the orchestra unleashes - it is as if the microphones are quailing before such an onslaught. The reality is that the sound goes rather opaque and thin at climaxes. I find it all but impossible to give an objective critique of this performance - I would go as far to say that it is possibly one of the best recordings Svetlanov ever made certainly in the way it enshrines his values as a conductor. Avoid at all costs if you have ever thought this conductor brash or superficial - nothing here will change your mind but for admirers a compulsory purchase if not already a treasured disc.

Ultimately a bit of a mish-mash of a programme but one with much to please fans of Soviet music making.

Nick Barnard























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