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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Russian Easter Festival Overture, Op. 36 (1887-88) [14.59]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Symphony in D minor (1888) [36.36]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Kirill Kondrashin
rec. live, 7 & 8 February 1980, Herkulessaal, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900704 [51.49]

From the BR Klassik archive series and originally released in 2009, this newly reissued album contains exciting performances of a work each from Rimsky-Korsakov and César Franck with Kirill Kondrashin (1914–1981) conducting the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, recorded live at a 1980 concert at the Herkulessaal, Munich. Moscow-born Kondrashin first conducted the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks in 1980. He had not long been in the West, having defected from the Soviet Union only in December 1978 while on tour in the Netherlands, where he sought political asylum. He was due to become the Munich-based orchestra’s chief conductor but died suddenly just over a year after this concert.

Although he began his professional life as a naval officer, Rimsky-Korsakov left behind a reputation as an expert teacher and master orchestrator. At the core of his music are sixteen operas, although after the enduringly popular Flight of the Bumblebee, his masterwork Scheherazade and also Capriccio Espagnol and the Russian Easter Festival Overture: Overture on Liturgical Themes are also often encountered. Sometimes known as the Great Russian Easter Overture, this concert overture was written in 1887/88 and the score bears a dedication to the memory of Mussorgsky and Borodin who had been fellow members of the New Russian School, a group known as The Five or The Mighty Handful and based in St. Petersburg. The purpose of the group was to create a new Russian music authentically based on the folk traditions and legends of their own nation. Kondrashin clearly revels in this brilliantly orchestrated music of his Russian countryman and I’m immediately struck by the vividly colourful sound produced by the Bavarian players. With strong and focused playing throughout Kondrashin, generates a brooding atmosphere that I find completely convincing.

Late to develop his mature style, Liège-born Franck wrote his masterpieces the Symphonic Variations (1885) and the Symphony in D minor (1888) when in his mid-sixties, the primary exception being his setting of the famous Panis Angelicus (1861). No less significant, Franck’s chamber music comprises several impassioned works, including two of most famous in all late-nineteenth century chamber music, the mighty Piano Quintet (1879) and the much-loved Violin Sonata (1886). Completed in 1888 after two years in the making, Franck’s Symphony in D minor premièred the following year at the Paris Conservatory under the direction of Jules Garcin and received a hostile reception for its radical style. Gounod actually described the score as “incompetence pushed to dogmatic lengths.” Characteristic of much of Franck’s compositional style, the Symphony is constructed around cyclical material which reappears modified or transformed throughout the movements. At one time a key work in the symphonic repertoire, it features on concert programmes much less these days. Each time I hear the work, I am reminded of the sound world of Beethoven and Schumann through to Tchaikovsky.

In a powerful performance of the opening movement marked Lento. Allegro non troppo, Kondrashin seems to underline the restless character of the writing with its thematic contrasts and heroic grand theme. Kondrashin infuses the middle movement Allegretto, with its short playful scherzo section, with tender melancholy and creates an engagingly poetic atmosphere heightened which is by the extended cor anglais solo. Described by music writer Ethan Mordden as, “an excited conclusion to the conflict of darkness to light”, the Finale as played under Kondrashin is radiantly joyous and uplifting.

I have heard a number of recordings of the Symphony, which is well represented in the catalogue, but this is one of the finest I know; the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks provides just the right amount of energy and momentum, achieving a wide array of orchestral colour. Others I tend to reach for first are the compelling accounts from Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Monteux recorded in 1961 in the Orchestra Hall, Chicago on BMC/RCA Living Stereo, the Symphony Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Lorin Maazel from 1961 in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch from 1963 in the Symphony Hall, Boston on RCA Red Seal. Those three classic accounts from the early 1960s now have strong competition from Kondrashin and his Bavarian players.

The Herkulessaal is renowned for its acoustics and the sound quality here is first class, being clear with splendid presence, revealing good detail and balance. I am not concerned by any intrusive audience noise and the applause at the conclusion of both works has been taken out. Uncommonly for this label, the booklet is rather disappointing, containing a short article about Kirill Kondrashin but no information about the two works themselves. This is a superbly played and recorded live album and if the repertoire suits there is no reason to hesitate.

Michael Cookson



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