Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877-1878) [42:48]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
A Night on the Bare Mountain (Sorochinsky Fair version, completed by Anatoly Liadov)* (1904) [10:46]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
The Love for Three Oranges – Suite, Op. 33bis (1924) [14:45]
David Wilson-Johnson (bass baritone)*
BBC Singers*; BBC Symphony Chorus*
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Gennadi Rozhdestvensky
rec. 1 June 1979, Leeds Music Festival, Leeds Town Hall (Tchaikovsky); 27 July 1981, Royal Albert Hall, London (Mussorgsky); 31 May 1981, Far East Tour, Kurashiki City Auditorium, Kurashiki, Japan (Prokofiev). ADD.
Sung texts not included
ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5035 [68:34]

The redoubtable Rozhdestvensky, chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1978 to 1981, is at his very best in Russian repertoire. Indeed, his Shostakovich has a raw energy that never fails to excite, so I had high hopes for this recording of Tchaikovsky’s febrile Fourth. The other items on this disc – all recorded live by the BBC – make for a sensible and interesting programme, the rarely heard Sorochinsky Fair version of Night on a Bald Mountain especially welcome. Also worthy of note is the growing catalogue of archive material from the recently launched ICA label, some of it previously unreleased and much of it – the Tennstedt Mahler 3, for instance – very desirable indeed.

The upfront blare of horns and bassoons at the start of the Tchaikovsky gives a clear indication of the character of Rozhdestvensky’s approach to this score; it’s vital and vigorous, yet the rhythms of ‘In movimento di Valse’ have grace and charm. The big climaxes pack a terrific punch – what thrilling timps – the transported brass scything through the mix like one of those brazen, Soviet-era performances. That’s not to say it’s over-driven – well, not yet, anyway – merely that it’s not the carefully sculpted sound-world of, say, Claudio Abbado (DG) or Lorin Maazel (Telarc). This uncompromising earthiness is reinforced by a forthright, yet detailed, recording.

The oboe playing at the start of the Andantino is lovely, Rozhdestvensky alive to the emotional undertow of this music. The strings and woodwind are wonderfully alert and ardent, testament perhaps to Noddy’s rigorous rehearsals, and there’s real nobility in those big, swelling tunes. Anyone who knows Rozhdestvensky’s Royal Festival Hall Sleeping Beauty (BBC Legends BBCL 4091-2) will recognise that seemingly intuitive feel for phrasing; it all sounds so spontaneous. As for the animated pizzicati of the Scherzo, they have a fleeting, will-o’-the-wisp quality that’s most engaging.

All that evaporates in the sudden heat of the Allegro con fuoco. In his autobiography producer John Culshaw tells the story of how Georg Szell was tricked into taping an ill-tempered – yet fiery – rendition of this finale, but even he can’t match the incandescence of Rozhdestvensky’s reading. The BBC brass and percussion are truly heroic, the orchestra hard-driven yet coherent to the very end. I listened to this track several times, scarcely able to believe this music could be taken at such a lick and not descend into chaos. The instant roar from the otherwise very quiet audience says it all. A thumping performance, and a pretty good recording too.

A Night on the Bare Mountain, most often played in Rimsky’s orchestration, is given here in Anatoly Liadov’s hotch-potch culled from Mussorgsky’s unfinished opera Sorochinsky Fair. The change of venue – London’s Royal Albert Hall – and the very immediate recording add an edge to the choral singing that brings plenty of piquancy and passion to this strange hybrid. Remarkably, Rozhdestvensky gets his British forces to play and sing with all the abandon of their Russian counterparts. What a team they would have made in Alexander Nevsky. Musically this is fascinating, with unusual colours and a melting coda. I’d urge you to give this a try if you don’t already know it.

If not Nevsky, then Prokofiev’s suite from The Love for Three Oranges will do very nicely, thank you. And so it proves; ‘The Clowns’ is played with manic energy and ‘The Magician’ is magnificently malevolent. Prokofiev’s audacious rhythms and acid colours are superbly caught, ditto the ever-present percussion and demented brass. As for the March and Scherzo, they’re imbued with rather more menace than usual, ‘The Prince and Princess’ as inward and ardent as ever. The scurrying strings and lancing brass of ‘The Flight’ have seldom emerged with such ferocity, or the cymbals sizzled so. An ear-blasting end to a most entertaining collection.

Noddy fans will want this disc, and those who have yet to experienced his unique blend of eloquence and excitement would do well to start here. The Tchaikovsky is a stunner, and while the Mussorgsky is something of a curiosity it’s well worth having. The Prokofiev-on-steroids is a wild but welcome bonus.

Another fine issue from ICA.

Dan Morgan

A most entertaining collection. Another fine issue from ICA.