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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 (1896) [47:38]
The Isle of the Dead - Symphonic Poem, Op. 29 (1908) [20:30]
USSR Symphony Orchestra/Evgeni Svetlanov
rec. Moscow, 1966. ADD
ALTO ALC1360 [68:10]

It's good news that Alto at bargain price continue to capitalise on the Melodiya connection. This disc arrives courtesy of licensing by CDK Music back to Gramzapis. The liner notes are by the ever illuminating and very readable James Murray.

Here on the present Alto disc is classic Svetlanov (1928-2002) intensity turned up to the Nth degree. Sure, there's harshness in the Symphony (I, 5:04) but this goes with the fiery spontaneity and wild-eyed Golovanov-style spirit that is part and parcel of vintage sessions from this conductor. We tend also to forget how few recordings of this work there were in the early 1960s so quite a few people in the West will have encountered this then-disregarded composer through Svetlanov. If there is rawness - and there is - you will find pin-sharp unanimity of attack, Slav mystery, touching poetry and in the finale a meeting place for romance doused in flaming accelerants (IV, 2:40). Glazunov's allegedly disastrous role as conductor at the premiere is now as much the stuff of legend as the Monteux premiere of The Rite of Spring or Beecham's launch of Holbrooke's Apollo Symphony. In any event Glazunov seems to have been impressed enough for the finale of his own Eighth Symphony to have taken on the gorgeous imperial ceremonial air of the Rachmaninov finale in all its abandon and triumph. The long resounding gong crash at 10:03 in the finale recalls the similarly liberated crash at the end of Kondrashin's Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances recorded with the Bolshoi Orchestra a few years before the Svetlanov sessions. This Isle of the Dead - surely influenced by Balakirev's Thamar - seethes with great waves of glimmering string tone and film noir atmosphere. The site has a good article on recordings of this piece where reviewers commented 'blindfold' on ten versions.

Unsurprisingly, these splendid Russian recordings have already had plenteous mileage in the catalogue, not least with BMG-Melodiya and Svet. Do not expect refinement or sophistication - for that go to Ormandy, Previn, Jansons, Ashkenazy, Petrenko and Noseda. In its place you will receive something close to feral abandon heard through sound that is now more than a half century old and Russian brass that warbles and blares. There's a 1995 version too which came via Warner-France as part of its Svetlanov Edition. It's good but it's on a lower flame. If you really must have something without the roughened edges but with much of the Svetlanov spirit then in a crowded field don't overlook Otaka or Kogan; the latter identically coupled and also at one time on Alto. For my part I would not be without this Svetlanov.

Rob Barnett


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