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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 3 in F major Op. 90 [35:09]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer [23:36]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1856-1899)
Poème de l'amour et de la mer* - La Mort de l'amour – Le Temps des lilas [13:55]
*Janet Baker (mezzo)
London Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. Royal Festival Hall, London, 17 April 1975
ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5123 [72:41]

A month after my review of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony on a newly released Melodiya LP by the conductor Evgeny Svetlanov, I was more than pleased when an ICA Classics CD of German and French orchestral music, by the Soviet maestro, landed on my doorstep. Glancing at the programme of this 1975 concert from London’s Royal Festival Hall, it’s immediately striking that for this trip to the UK, Svetlanov was determined not to be stereotyped as an advocate purely of Russian fare. For this occasion he and his London players served up a delicious helping of Brahms, Debussy and Chausson. Having said that, his performances of the Brahms symphonic canon in no way matched those of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies in terms of number. That said, there is a Brahms cycle on Melodiya, recorded in the 1980s, I’ve never heard it.
This Brahms 3 is gripping. Forceful and dramatic, the first movement is characterized by sweeping extroversion. Eschewing the exposition repeat which, to my mind adversely affects the balance to some extent, this is a relatively small price to pay for such an outstanding, inspirational reading. Having a grasp of the architecture and structure, Svetlanov maintains the ebb and flow of the intellectual argument. Everything just sits right – phrasing, tempi and a superb handling of dynamics. With well-judged rubato and a sensitive handling of transitions, this all adds up to a compelling reading. I must single out Jack Brymer’s contribution in the clarinet solo of the second movement - the exquisite way he moulds the phrases, brings ardent tenderness to the score.
The third movement opens with one of my favourite melodies. Svetlanov judges the mood just right, aptly gauging the melancholic and autumnal feel of Brahms’ music in a captivating manner. Then comes the fourth movement. Here suspense is generated before the eruption of a dramatic and volatile finale. All in all, a truly memorable performance.
In Debussy’s La Mer, Svetlanov deftly colours the score with myriad shadings and tones. It’s a nicely paced performance. In De l'aube à midi sur la mer he conjures up the atmosphere of darkness evolving into light, climaxing with the midday sun. I love the way he points up the woodwind phrases. In Jeux de vagues the rippling strings evoke the play of the waves, in a showcase for woodwinds, brass and percussion. Svetlanov achieves ideal orchestral balance in Dialogue du vent et de la mer. The brass section’s contribution is second to none. In the big tune there is ardent, heartfelt lyricism. The tumultuous applause at the end says it all. I listened to this La Mer side by side with a live recording made thirteen years earlier in 1962 with Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic (Leningrad Masters LM1304). Here the harsh sonics, with an excess of bronchial participation from the audience, rule it out as a contender, though the interpretation does capture the spirit of the piece.
A bonus track of the second movement of Chausson’s Poème de l'amour et de la mer - La Mort de l'amour – Le Temps des lilas featuring Janet Baker, is a welcome addition. The complete version can be found on BBC Legends (BBCL 4077). Dame Janet is in fine voice, and was at her peak around this time. Sensitively accompanied by Svetlanov it provides a tempting taster for the full thing.
Sound quality throughout is excellent, almost studio quality. Many thought the Royal Festival Hall acoustic at this time too dry and lacking in resonance. Even Sir John Barbirolli commented some years previously that ‘there is no impact, no fullness on the climaxes’. I don’t find any problems here, the acoustic ambience seems ideal.
I commend ICA Classics for making these, and many other historical live recordings available, preserving them for posterity.
Stephen Greenbank
Masterwork Index: Brahms symphony 3 ~~ La mer