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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in G major* (1929-1931) [21:40]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in D major, For the Left Hand** (1929-1930) [18:45]
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1910) [7:14]
La Valse (1920) [13:10]
*Yakov Zak (piano); **Alexander Slobodyanik (piano)
USSR Academic State Symphony Orchestra/Yevgeny Svetlanov, Vladimir Verbitsky
rec. 1959 (first concerto), 1978 (second concerto), 1975 (Pavane), 1982 (La Valse), Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, Moscow. Mono/stereo, ADD/DDD
MELODIYA MEL CD 1002160 [60:50]

Now this is unusual, the legendary Russian conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov in French repertoire. True he has recorded Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer (LSO, BBC Legends BBCL 50062) and Debussy’s La mer (ICA Classics ICAD 5123 and Naïve V4946, with the LSO and French National Orchestra respectively). He conducts the Ravel G major concerto and the two ‘bonus tracks’ here; Vladimir Verbitsky conducts the left hander. Zak’s performance of the first concerto has appeared on CD before as part of a compilation (MEL CD 1001789) but I can’t trace CD versions of the other items on this disc.
Svetlanov was one of those conductors who tackled everything he did with considerable gusto, even if the results were less than polished. That approach works just fine with Russian repertoire, but what of Ravel’s metropolitan chic? The soloist in the G major concerto is the Ukrainian pianist Yakov Zak (1913-1976). It’s a surprisingly good mono broadcast from 1959, and the ear adjusts to the narrow soundstage quickly enough. The diamantine glitter of the piano part certainly comes through well enough. Also, there’s an urgency and eloquence to Zak’s playing that’s hard to resist; his account of the Adagio assai combines clarity and insight, and Svetlanov is a pliable accompanist throughout. I was particularly taken with Zak’s nimble and proportionate response to Ravel’s mercurial writing, not to mention his sure feeling for the work’s idiom. French spoken with a Russian accent? Certainly, but it’s remarkably fluent.
The second concerto is played by another Ukrainian pianist, Alexander Slobodyanik (1941-2008). Although the recording was made in 1978 the opening sounds rather murky; that said it brightens up nicely thereafter, with clean, animated playing from soloist and orchestra alike. This, too, is a thoroughly engaging performance whose lyrical impulses are never crushed by heavy handedness. The orchestra seem to relish those sudden outbursts – tastefully rendered, I assure you – and Slobodyanik responds with alacrity and good humour to Ravel’s scintillating score. Conductor Verbitsky is impressive too; his pacing is persuasive and he makes full use of the concerto’s extensive colour palette.
I do admire Svetlanov in Russian repertoire - his Shostakovich especially - and in the wake of that marvellous first concerto I feel I must endorse his French excursions too. However, his two 'bonus tracks' are comparatively disappointing. The Pavane is decent enough, even if the woodwind wobble is disfiguring, and there’s a pleasing ebb and flow to the performance as a whole. Svetlanov’s ear for blend and detail is as reliable as ever, and he doesn’t overload the music with too much expressive weight. La Valse is also well handled, although it lacks the rhythmic audacity and glint of madness that others find in the piece. The 1982 recording is close and rather dry; thankfully it’s not at all fatiguing.
These are logical fillers, I suppose, but they don’t show Svetlanov at anything near his best; besides, there are far more accomplished performances of these works to be had elsewhere. Frankly I would have been more than happy with just the concertos, for there’s a wholly unexpected sit-up-and-listen quality to both that encourages one to hear these staples anew. There’s brief applause after the second concerto and La Valse; also, the more recent recordings bring fewer advantages in terms of weight, space and detail than one might expect. Indeed, the ‘modern’ engineering is rather crude at times; as with the start of the second concerto that of La Valse sounds rather boomy, and the end of the Pavane is faded too abruptly. The disc and booklet are enclosed in one of those ghastly Digipaks.
The concertos are a treat; routine fillers though.
Dan Morgan