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Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Symphony No.1 in C major (1864-97) [40:07]
Symphonic Poem: Russia (1863) [13:38]
Symphonic Poem: Tamara (1867) [21:06]
USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Evgeni Svetlanov
rec. stereo, Moscow, 1974 (Symphony); 1978 (Symphonic Poems). ADD ALTO ALC1331 [75:09]
Alto do well to maintain their Russian connection to a catalogue that was the premium mainstay of the 1970s and 1980s. You could probe back further and look for recordings of these works by Gauk and Golovanov. If you could find them you would sacrifice stereo and good modern recording techniques adopted by sound engineers, Yuri Kokzhayan, S Pazukhin and E Shakhnazaryan working during the days of Alexei Kosygin.
Svetlanov takes all three works by the scruff of the neck and bends them to his benevolent will. The Symphony's first movement involves a nicely balanced interplay of tension, relaxation, imperial triumphalism and shudderingly driven urgency; the latter returns in a wildly boiling cauldron for the finale. The Scherzo quickly accelerates through brisk delight to Polovtsian-style abandon and then yielding and swelling poetry. The ideas - and they're good - keep coming. Take the lazily unfolding yet mesmerising clarinet tune in the big controlled Andante. This is the lonely beauty of the steppe personified. The finale raps along full of lively rhythmic invention, happiness and excitement. It is touched with many moments redolent of the best of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. The sound is warm and the orchestra has that authentic Russian 'zing' and just a hint of Soviet warble. Russia is presented in cocooned sound with every woodwind strand clear. As music it is agreeably discursive - a rhapsody without the narrative keystoned arch of Tamara. Tamara tells a murderous supernatural story of seduction and death as recounted by Mikhail Lermontov. Svetlanov absorbingly colours in the detail with a master's hand adept at these dark Rimskian pages. As an illustration, listen to the marbling of the oily slip-sliding violins at 13:54.
If you must have more modern sound - not that this sounds superannuated or feeble in any way - then try for Svetlanov's re-recording for Hyperion (CDD22030) or Sinaisky's for Chandos.
There was a time when all of the Svetlanov Soviet era Balakirevs could be had on BMG or Svet but those sets have long gone the way of all flesh. This particular combination of three works was reviewed here when it was issued on Regis in 2003. It was welcome then and it is welcome now. Alto's generously detailed three page liner-note is by the excellent James Murray.
Svetlanov has the intoxicating measure of these classic works of Russian nationalism - a fine single disc collection.