Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, op. 13, Winter Dreams [42:24]
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, op. 17 [34:39]
Symphony No. 3 in D major, op. 29 [45:57] Symphony No. 4 in F minor, op. 36 [40:09] Manfred - Symphony in B minor, op. 58 [56:59] Symphony No. 5 in E minor, op. 64 [47:44] Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Pathétique, op. 74 [45:48]
State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. Moscow, 1967. stereo ADD MELODIYA MELCD1002157 [5 CDs: 76.57 + 78.12 + 66.00 + 47.44 + 45.48]
These recordings are well known; at least they will be to the generation that recalls the 12-inch long player. The set was first issued in the West on vinyl as EMI-Melodiya SLS 881. That was in the late 1960s; not that long after the recording sessions. Those recordings have reappeared on Melodiya CDs but have also put in a fleeting appearance (minus Manfred) on a now hard to find Aulos box from Korea. BMG reissued them in the late 1990s in three handsome twofers and included many other Tchaikovsky works. They will also be known, mixed with a cavalcade of Tchaikovsky pieces, in a large all-Svetlanov box from Scribendum; I have lifted some text from my review of that box.
These raw neon-lit golden-age 1960s recordings are what we have here. They are inseparable from the still distinctive Soviet wind sound. The first three are presented without apologies and with intensity poured into them as if they were the last three. This First Symphony is brisk, flightily-light and emotionally spot-on. The music communicates with effervescence of Glazunov's The Seasons if you know the intoxicating 1960s Boris Khaikin recording. Perhaps Svetlanov is not quite as successful as the under-rated Bernstein/CBS in numbers one, two and three but there is plenty here to enjoy. Symphony No. 2 with its pre-echoes of Manfred is nicely rounded and very well judged. Svetlanov evidently takes pains over this score and relishes every little detail. The sound is very gutsy yet the wispy supernatural mood of the third movement is nicely caught. The finale has a boot-shod imperial celebratory zest comparable with that of the finale of Glazunov's Eighth Symphony. The Third Symphony is the most nationalistic of the six: resonant, balletic, wintry and with a stiffly marked Tsarist strut. I should add that in 1999 BMG-Melodiya issued a two-CD set of the first three symphonies plus Francesca and soon added to this a similarly designed twofer of the last three symphonies plus The Voyevoda.
Svetlanov's Fourth Symphony is goodish - strong on exhilaration and not quite as death-defyingly breathless as the stereo Mravinsky recording. At least the conductor steers clear of the sort of incredible intensity that tore his Capriccio Italien to pieces. The symphony enjoys remarkable playing without eclipsing the juice and heart of the piece. It is a shame that the Fourth is split across two discs but there was little choice short of this becoming a six-CD box and priced accordingly. The Fifth Symphony is good if a little stiff and be ready for that typically warbly French horn solo in the second movement. It is exciting but not in the same league as Monteux, Stokowski, Temirkanov, Mravinsky or Sawallisch. The humming and brooding Svetlanov Sixth Symphony is also a strong contender.
The Svetlanov Manfred is one of the gramophone's greats; unaccountably it was excluded from the Aulos set. Brace yourself though: it's shattering. Many veteran collectors will remember its appearance on LP as ASD2558. In that form, with its long playing sides, it tested groove stylus tolerance, especially as the LP began to wear. We can put that limitation behind us; it hardly counts as nostalgia. Here each trudging massed-string attack is given a different yet consistently commanding sonority. This is devastatingly electric playing comparable with another as yet under-sung hot-headed Russian great, Konstantin Symeonov. Sadly, two of the volcanic Soviets seem never to have recorded Manfred: Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov (Tchaikovsky tone poems on deleted Olympia) and Nikolai Golovanov (to be found in various pieces on long-deleted Boheme). Back to Svetlanov. I should add that in the late 1990s BMG-Melodiya gave us this 1967 Manfred plus some of the tone poems. Svetlanov's reading remains among the best yet most viscerally fierce of Manfreds by a long chalk.
The five discs come with a booklet, decorated with Kuznetsov's brooding portrait of the composer, in a flimsy card box. Each disc is in its own rigid protective sleeve. A substantial essay comes in Cyrillic, English and French. These fifty-year-old recordings have been most agreeably transferred with silent silences, clean transients, secure sustained notes and uncrowded yet forward climaxes. Predictably the violins at times can be over-bright but it's a small price to pay and the ear soon becomes attuned. The re-mastering is by E. Barykina; I do wish the Russians would give full first names. While we are on the trivia trail: why do Melodiya CDs carry a 16+ logo?
Svetlanov's Tchaikovsky symphonies are a discographical reference point. Konstantin Ivanov produced the first Soviet cycle of the numbered symphonies in mono; that was in the 1950s. It merits exhumation and new consideration. It would be good to have his six alongside the DG mono set of the last three symphonies from Mravinsky/Sanderling and the Leningraders. Svetlanov was unleashed onto the seven symphonies with the benefit of stereo and Alexander Grossman's sensationally-lit recording techniques.
In a ruthlessly competitive market this must, I reluctantly concede, be treated as a historical issue. However when compared to the perfection of other hum-drum soul-poor versions this has all the unruly virtues of vivid, human music-making. Svetlanov in the 1960s was no perpetrator of Stepford Wives-style risk-averse Tchaikovsky. This set belongs on the shelf next to Markevitch, Mravinsky, Stokowski, Monteux, Rozhdestvensky and Temirkanov. You will need to avoid only if you are determined to be allergic to 1960s Soviet wind instruments and playing techniques.