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Most people who write reviews about reissues of somewhat recondite material will face a crisis of confidence at some point, whether to do with the state of transfers – if you don’t have access to the originals by what criteria are you judging – or to the origin of source material. Mravinsky’s legacy is hardly recondite and has been picked over for a long time now, but like other Soviet-era performances, such as Oistrakh material on Praga, it has been subject to a certain amount of furrowed scrutiny. I therefore approached this set with a mixture of anticipation and unease and no amount of recourse to discographic sources has quite allayed the latter feeling. To put it bluntly, I’m not sure where a couple of these performances come from.
Since Hänssler Profil has started branching out in the direction of large-scale boxes – done with gusto but also with a certain scatter-shot populism – it’s become clear that some releases ask questions of the listener. In the case of volume four of the Mravinsky edition, such questions are to do with which particular recording – they are predominantly but not exclusively live - we are listening to and to associated questions of attribution.
The first three discs are devoted to six Beethoven symphonies. Full recording dates are given for each. The earliest is the Moscow recording of No.2 in 1940, where Mravinsky directs the USSR State Symphony, which was out on BMG Japan twenty or so years ago. The recording is strident and unappealing in its immediacy but in compensation the performance is tremendously vivid and intense. The Eroica, with its gravely noble funeral march here, (June 1961) was taped live in Bergen; the only other survivor seems to be the 1968 reading. The Fourth seems to be a live Prague recording from June 1955. Though it’s quite blaring, the studio Fifth is in pretty good sound for a 1949 Melodiya studio recording in Leningrad; is this the same transfer as was used in the BMG reissue in the mid-90s or is it something else entirely. I’m not sure I’m equipped to answer this. The mono Sixth is from March 1962, ex Russian Disc I suspect, and not the much later 1982 JVC whilst No.7 is from 1958 and the Leningrad studios. It’s in rather better sound than the Bergen Eroica.
The main feature of disc four is Francesca da Rimini, though it’s not, apparently, the Moscow Philharmonic 78rpm set of 1940 but the 1948 Leningrad traversal; Glinka (Ruslan and Ludmila overture, characteristically fast), the presto from Liadov’s Baba-Yaga and Rimsky’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh bulk out the disc attractively – the last mentioned coming from a studio session in 1949. From November 1957 comes Shostakovich’s Symphony No.11, though it’s misdated to 1955 in the booklet details. It was premiered by Nathan Rakhlin a few days before Mravinsky’s broadcast. You would have been able to find this intense reading on Russian Disc. The previous year Mravinsky sounds altogether unbuttoned for Galina Ustovolskaya’s Children’s Suite which first saw service on a Melodiya LP and then on BMG Japan CD.
Disc six contains Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No.1 (Oistrakh, Leningrad) with a claimed date of 30 November 1956. There’s a Brilliant Box devoted to Oistrakh that claims 18 November for its traversal with the same forces, but I think Hänssler is correct and that this is probably the same performance. It’s coupled with Boris Klyuzner’s Violin Concerto, played in March 1957 by Mikhail Vaiman. I know Mravinsky conducted the same composer’s Second Symphony, a performance of which has survived, but had no idea as to the survival of the Concerto, a lissome, folkloric, often quite jolly work with a Shostakovich-derived rhythmic stamp from time to time – brash in place but superbly played by Vaiman. The solid Schubert Unfinished comes from 6 May 1959 though other sources claim 24 April; USSR State Symphony live in Moscow, in any case. The Bartók Music for strings, percussion and celeste is not the Moscow 1965 or the live 1967 Praga (if that’s what it claims to be) but an earlier reading still from 1962, live in Budapest. I wasn’t aware of this Budapest survival and there are a very few rough edges in this vital reading.
I also don’t know the provenance of Sibelius’ Third (Leningrad, 27 October 1963), committed if a little erratic, though The Swan of Tuonela, not a patch on Rosbaud’s reading, was once on Russian Disc. This disc is rounded out with a hearty Glazunov Fourth Symphony from the Leningrad studios in 1948, as if to stop Golovanov’s disc hegemony in this composer’s symphonic cycle on Melodiya. The sound is fine. The penultimate disc contains two roistering works from Khachaturian. The Piano Concerto is with Lev Oborin (Czech Philharmonic, 1946) and recorded in Prague, the city where fourteen years later the composer would record the work with Czech pianist Antonín Jemelíik in a performance now on Supraphon. Under the gimlet eye of Mravinsky, Oborin generates much, much more heat than the more relaxed Czech pianist. There is also the premiere of the Symphony No.3 ‘Symphony-Poem’ which was given on 13 December 1947. Gritty and spitty the sonics may be, but little can quite tame the 15 trumpets that blaze away with organ in all their Stan Kentonised melodramatic glory. As festive and exciting as it is even Alexander Arutiunian’s overture, the final item on this disc, can’t survive the sonic assault of the Khachaturian.
The main work in the final disc is Babajanian’s Violin Concerto, played in 1949 by the lordly Leonid Kogan. Once again, I don’t know of a prior commercial release of this, though I dare say there may well have been one. Kogan plays with exceptional refinement and virtuosity – the cadenza is a real tour de force – and he even brings the somewhat more conventional finale to exciting life. The final bits-and-pieces include Un bal from the Symphonie fantastique – Doremi has already issued this – and Debussy’s Premičre Rhapsody with clarinetist Vladimir Krasavin. This is undated but is presumably from 1962 and ex-Russian Disc and Leningrad Masters.
Documentation consists of a two-page biography of the conductor in German and in English. There’s nothing about the performances or their provenance and no release details or catalogue numbers of the commercial recordings. I can’t say that I have dealt satisfactorily with a number of the question marks posed by this set. In any case much of Mravinsky’s legacy is in a bit of a mess so step through the minefield with a certain amount of caution if there are things that are of particular interest in this box.
Contents Alexander Arutiunian
Festive Overture Arno Babajanian
Violin Concerto in A minor Béla Bartók
Music for strings, percussion and celesta, Sz106 BB114 Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony no.2 in D major, op.36
Symphony no.3 in E flat major, op.55 'Eroica'
Symphony no.4 in B flat major, op.60
Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67
Symphony no.6 in F major, op.68 'Pastoral'
Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92 Hector Berlioz
La Damnation de Faust, op.24 H111 (orchestral excerpts)
Symphonie fantastique, op.14 H48 Claude Debussy
Rhapsody for clarinet and orchestra, L116 'Premiere rapsodie' Alexander Glazunov
Raymonda: Suite, op.57
Symphony no.4 in E flat major, op.48 Mikhail Glinka
Ruslan and Lyudmila, op.5
Overture, Ruslan and Ludmila Aram Khachaturian
Piano Concerto in D flat major, op.38
Symphony no.3 'Simfoniya-poema' Boris Klyuzner
Violin Concerto Anatol Liadov
Baba Yaga, op.56 Franz Liszt
Mephisto Waltz no.1, S110/2 'Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke' Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh: Suite Franz Schubert
Symphony no.8 in B minor, D759 'Unfinished' Dmitri Shostakovich
Festive Overture, op.96
Symphony no.11 in G minor, op.103 'The Year 1905'
Violin Concerto no.1 in A minor, op.99 Jean Sibelius
Lemminkainen Suite, op.22; no.2 The Swan of Tuonela
Symphony no.3 in C major, op.52 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Francesca da Rimini, op.32 Galina Ustvolskaya
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra
USSR State Symphony Orchestra
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra