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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Music for strings, percussion and celesta Sz106 (1936) [27.43]
rec. live, Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, 24 May 1967
Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Symphony No.3 Liturgique (1945-6) [26.48]
rec. live, Great Hall, Moscow Conservatory, USSR, 28 February 1965
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Agon - ballet for 12 dancers (1953-57) [23.37]
rec. live, Great Hall, Moscow Conservatory, USSR, 30 October 1968
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Yevgeny Mravinsky
Reviewed in SACD

This is Mravinsky at his peak. The playing of the Leningrad Philharmonic in these three twentieth century works is quite astonishingly good. All three are live performances but with quiet audiences and at least adequate recording quality. Praga Digitals have extracted as much as seems possible from these fifty year-old broadcast tapes. Everything is in stereo, though the Stravinsky has more space than detail or spread. The Bartók and Honegger do yield a very respectable stereo image which adds to the interest of the performances.

Bartók's great masterpiece has done well in the recording studio with both Karajan and Solti having made recordings which have stood the test of time. Solti in particular made a version with the London Symphony Orchestra which has been adopted as a benchmark for virtuosity as well as quality of sound and interpretation. Decca's recording — made three years before this present one, in 1964 — still sounds as good as any. Mravinsky's performance, whilst it may not obscure Solti, has an intensity and precision that amazed me. Perhaps this Praga issue is worth the price just for the Bartók. However, there is also the Honegger. The Liturgique has been served fairly well on disc with perhaps the finest recording being, again, Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. Their 1973 version continues to hold its head high but the Mravinsky has still more tension. The second movement features Leningrad's famous trumpet section at their most piercing and the finale sounds positively dangerous. Oddly, the climactic coda is drawn out overmuch and the huge decrescendo collapse fails to make full impact. The 1965 Soviet recording, though clear, has much more limited dynamic range. Listeners should be sure to press the stop button after Honegger's very quiet ending to prevent Stravinsky bursting in on the following track. Agon is not very well known. This is hardly unexpected for it proceeds from the lively and affirmative opening to become more and more serialist in style. The composer's later music is often rather dense and technical, exhibiting determination rather than inspiration: Agon suffers a bit from this. However, this precise and rhythmic interpretation is still well worth hearing despite the 'spacious-monophonic' feel of the sound. I note that the track numbering drifts at some point, my player ending on 24 whilst the notes say 22. Presentation is up to Praga's normal high standard with plenty of interesting information in the notes. The one mystery is the unexplained presence on the cover of one Ilya Shpilberg along with the LPO. A little research revealed that he was their concertmaster at this time. Perhaps Praga might have told us.

Dave Billinge

Reviews of previous releases: Bartók (Praga) and Honegger (Melodiya)



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