Russian Overtures and Orchestral works
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
rec. Moscow Conservatory Concert Hall, 16-23 November 1993 – April 1994. DDD
Full tracklist at end of review
NEWTON CLASSICS NC8802037 [62:02 + 67:25]

Newton Classics, while having a predilection for analogue, also have their pick of the best digital efforts in the Universal treasure-house. The 1990s DG originals in this case were for CD 1 439 089-2 5823 (1993) and for CD 2 The Enchanted Kingdom 447 084-2 (1994).

Just one point to mention before we get to the music itself. I had not realised until researching this set that Pletnev (b. 1957) is also a composer. His Yeats Song Cycle for soprano, chorus and orchestra (2003, 2009) was premiered by him with the RNO and Lisa Delan, soprano in the USA in February 2010. I hope that we will get to hear this work: its poems might well have drawn out something rather special. He sets The Wild Swans at Coole, The Shadowy Horses and When You Are Old.

In this all-digital set. Pletnev goes for the famous Glinka overture like a tiger. This is comparable to Golovanov in Mendelssohn’s famous scherzo or Dorati in Brahms. The RNO are driven at a rate just within their very considerable virtuosity. The Borodin overture is full of character – once or twice a touch unfeeling – but some unconventional rallentandos around 3:00 work rather well. It’s all very excitingly done with sappy attention to rhythmic patterning. The RNO retain more than a shadow of the Soviet style of brass playing. After a bumptiously red-cheeked and carefree Shostakovich comes an unfamiliar piece of Prokofiev: the Intro from Semyon Kotko standing poetically in the same misty stream as Mussorgsky’s Dawn on the Moskva River also most lovingly played and recorded here. It is broadly paced but then – much to my surprise – so is the punchy little Kabalevsky crowd-pleaser. Back to Russia’s first nationalistic golden age with Rimsky’s Tsar’s Bride prelude. The rare Tchaikovsky overture takes a while to find its feet. It’s by no means all characteristic stuff with Glinka putting in the odd appearance here and there although there are quite a few balletic and 1812 moments - typical fingerprints. The Glazunov overture also sports a few Glinka moments and a gracious Tchaikovskian clarinet solo which returns, lofted by noble strings, at the close. Its title seems at odd with its content – not at all ‘solennelle’; hardly matters as it has more than few attractive moments.

The companion disc mixes the still unfamiliar Liadov and virtually unknown Tcherepnin with the occasionally recorded Rimsky suite – nicely done in the early 1960s by Ormandy and his Philadelphians on CBS (LP 61586). It shines in a sophisticated light here with the masterful orchestration well complemented by recording technology. The delectable Tsar Dodon as Guest of the Queen of Shemakha movement takes us to Antar territory. In the last movement the French Horns whoop with an impressive delirium – you will remember them. Liadov’s picture of Baba Yaga is taken at a more sedate pace than usual so the blundering hag pauses for reflection. That said, at this gait, one also notices basso profundo brass cannonades more familiar from the final measures of Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini. The whisper-confiding quasi-Sibelian Enchanted Lake is much more successful. It’s notable for being bombast-free, for taut hyper-Rimskian shimmer and magnificently calculated less-is-more orchestration. It is a truly lovely iridescent piece in the same company as the Prokofiev and Mussorgsky on the first piece. It casts a gentle but very strong spell. Kikimora – another witch - takes us to a world not that far removed from Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead rich in Slav melancholia and later in suggestions of a witches sabbat. There are some tasty solos for woodwind along the way. The Tcherepnin pieces are rarities indeed and it is very good to encounter them in any context. While Tcherepnin might have been a Rimsky pupil his La Princesse lointaine – on a play by Edmond Rostand – sounds more stormily Tchaikovskian. I see that the subject matter is about a knight dreaming about an oriental princess. There is however a touch of Rimsky in the gorgeous long-limbed melody made airborne and lushly spruced at 6:43. The Enchanted Kingdom gave its name to the whole CD when first issued. This has moved on from La Princesse lointaine. It touches on Kastchei’s garden, without quite Stravinsky’s genius. It reminded me of Bax’s fragile mastery of orchestration and melodic contours in Spring Fire and Nympholept and Burlingame Hill’s Prelude; the latter recorded by Bernstein in the 1950s. There’s some lovely trilling and shimmering magic here. Harp, piano and tinkling percussion and the more conventional instruments sigh, evoke bird-song and other idyllic visions. It’s a real discovery and makes one want to hear much more by the elder Tcherepnin.

There’s no direct digital twofer competition for this set so if you are in the market for a very good, superbly recorded and unhackneyed helping of Russian golden age works look no further than Newton Classics.

Rob Barnett

In the market for a superbly recorded and unhackneyed helping of Russian golden age works look no further.

Full Tracklist
CD 1 [62:02]
Mikhail Ivanovich GLINKA (1804-1857) Ruslan and Lyudmila, Op. 5: Overture (1837-1842) [4:47]
Alexander Porfir'yevich BORODIN (1833-1887) Prince Igor (Knyaz Igor): Overture (1869-1887) [10:16]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Festive Overture, Op. 96 (1954) [5:37]
Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) Semyon Kotko Suite, Op. 81bis Introduction (1941) [3:37]
Dmitry Borisovich KABALEVSKY (1904-1987) Colas Breugnon, Op. 24: Overture (1938-1969) [5:31]
Nikolay Andreyevich RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908) The Tsar's Bride: Overture (1898) [6:30]
Modest Petrovich MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) Khovanshchina, Act I: Prelude "Dawn on the Moscow River" (1872-1880) [5:28]
Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Overture in F major (1866 version for full orchestra) [11:05]
Alexander Konstantinovich GLAZUNOV (1865-1936) Ouverture solennelle, Op. 73 (1900) [5:31]
CD 2 [67:25]
Anatol Konstantinovich LIADOV (1855-1914) Baba Yaga, Op. 56 (1892-1904) [3:35]; Volshebnoye ozero (The Enchanted Lake), Op. 62 (1909) [7:04]; Kikimora, Op. 63 (1909) [7:11]
Nikolai TCHEREPNIN (1873-1945) La princesse lointaine, Op. 4: Prelude (1896) [9:17]; The Enchanted Kingdom - Prelude [13:34]
Nikolay Andreyevich RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908) arr GLAZUNOV and STEINBERG The Golden Cockerel Suite (1907) (I. Tsar Dodon in his Palace [8:48]; II. Tsar Dodon on Campaign [4:33]; III. Tsar Dodon as Guest of the Queen of Shemakha [6:46]; IV. The Wedding and Lamentable End of Dodon [6:37])