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MRAVINSKY Edition BOX. 1 LENINGRAD PO/YEVGENY MRAVINSKY   10 CDs BMG-Melodiya 74321 25189 2  (also available separately)
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This is the first of two BMG boxes of Mravinsky-conducted recordings. Each comprises ten discs in a slip case. The slip case for Box 1 is of light card by contrast with the heavy duty box for No. 2. Each disc is available separately.

The recordings emanate from radio tapes of live concerts, studio broadcasts and commercial Melodiya recordings. The first box has a higher quotient of more recent recordings and technical quality tends to be better although in the face of Mravinsky's raw intensity issues such as sound quality are often lost sight (and sound) of seconds into the disc.

A common strength of the set are insert notes (trilingual) from Dr Sigrid Neef. These seem to have been prepared after some time-consuming research. They certainly suggest dedication and make for great illumination in the way they, wherever possible, concentrate on the background to the recording and Mravinsky's performance history for that particular work.

Given the amount of music in these boxes all I can do is to provide notes on my impressions of the performances. I am aware that there is a considerable investigative literature and discography mapping out the provenance of various Mrav recordings. I cannot provide that expertise here but I can speak as an enthusiast (balanced, I hope) of fine Russian recordings and of Mravinsky in particular.

Full discographical information is given in the booklets. Playing times are generous.

Vol. 1 WEBER SCHUBERT BRAHMS - rec 1978 live

There are two strands in these sets: the German classical mainstream and the Russian nationalist. The Weber Oberon is full of Teutonic magic and refinement. The same can be said of the Schubert Unfinished which in its tragic stride always seemed ahead of its time and certainly more tragic than Schubert's so-titled symphony. The Brahms 2 lilts and dances in an autumnal glow.


In this coupling we span the two streams. The Mozart (Figaro overture and Symphony No. 34) is precise and full of lively bounce. The Mussorgsky is intense and, in its delicate though steely impressionism, illustrates how the Russian school could have been an influence on Debussy.

The Sibelius Symphony No 7 is in a live recording from the Grand Hall, Moscow Conservatoire, February 1965. A performance crackling with tension and crowned by a trombone section whose fruity Russian vibrato may prove a problem for some but which for me catches the magnificence of this epic score. The trombone here rises triumphantly from its accustomed role as bragging school bully to bardic alumnus. This recording gives me that frisson which is the usual signal for a very special piece of music in a performance to match. It as this high candle power approach which was my introduction to Mravinsky back in 1973. I remember buying the EMI LP incarnation secondhand in Bristol in the late 1970s. After hearing this performance all the others seem too smooth and refined. The magnificence of Sibelius emerges from a primitive Northern magic and it is that wild primeval quality which Mravinsky projects with electric intensity. The Swan floats in a lake of lugubrious magic.

rec 1965 and 1976

Stravinsky's Agon ballet is amongst his driest works but in Mravinsky's hands it comes alive. Shostakovich's kaleidoscopic puzzle of a 15th symphony was not premiered by Mravinsky however within four months of Maxim's Moscow premiere Mravinsky gave a performance in Leningrad. The Mahlerian collision between populist highlights from Rossini and volcanic tragedy had many scratching their heads. Mravinsky leaves the contrast in full focus and is a strong advocate for the work. This performance dates from a concert given on 26 May 1976 to commemorate the composer who had died in 1975. The clockwork of eternity ringing and clicking in the final bars is well done by the Leningraders.

Vol. 4 BRUCKNER rec 1980

Bruckner is not instantly a name one associates with Mravinsky. Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich? yes, but Bruckner? In fact he introduced Bruckner No. 4 to Leningrad audiences within a year of being appointed conductor of the Leningrad orchestra in 1938. In 1939 he added No. 7 and in 1940 No. 9. This concert tape of Symphony No. 9 dates from 1980 and sounds clean and powerful with just that invigorating edge one associates with Russian performances and recordings. Mravinsky's approach is very sharply etched - a clarion purity which is given some memorable juiciness and spice by the Russian accented brass choir. The bray is nowhere near as pronounced as one is used to from Russian orchestras recorded in the 1950s and 1960s but it is still there. Presumably the softened edge was due to the increasing import of Western sourced instruments and techniques. The strings are wondrously light-toned in Bruckner's many sunny uplands - try 16.58 in the third movement.

Vol. 5

Here we veer back into the Russian vein. The Nutcracker suite (six numbers) is done with a light fantasy (compare the late 1940s version in Vol 2) but with just the right hint of darkness to settle the glycerine and caramel of this oft-derided score. Romeo and Juliet is a classic of Mravinsky's repertoire - hyper-romantic, raw emotions, epic horns in a strident blaze of agony and triumph. At just under an hour this is among the shorter playing times.


These tapes emanate from the famous series of Moscow Grand Hall concerts in 1965. Neither fits the two mainstreams identified above. The Hindemith symphony Die Harmonie der Welt has some Russian linkages and, as you would expect, fully projects a Mravinskian spirit. Hindemith visited Russia twice as violist with the Amar Quartet. His opera Neues von Tage (seen as a scandalous work at the time) was to have been performed in Leningrad in 1929-1930. However this was not to be as Stalinism began to put up the shutters. This performance was given just over a year after the 'freeze' had ended with Mravinsky giving the Russian premiere of the work. Its lyrical intensity completely confounds the usual image of Hindemith and this recording could easily be used to win friends for Hindemith's often slighted music.

Much the same can be said about the Honegger whose music also suffers from a dried-out image. The fruity tragedy of the war-torn symphony No. 3 makes for parallels with Shostakovich 6; another work done with typical blaze by Mravinsky.

This disc plays for just over an hour.


In this disc classical and Russian mainstreams meet. The classical poise of Beethoven's 4th symphony is as well done (and without incongruous infusions of Russian intensity) as the ripe romanticism of Tchaik Symphony No. 5. The late Tchaikovsky symphonies, since their DG recordings (1950s mono - Sanderling did No. 4 - or 1960s stereo sets), will always be associated with Mravinsky and the Leningraders. This performance in its ebb, flow and sweep is impressive but lacks a degree or so of the warmth of the DG stereo version.


These again are sourced from tapes of the live concerts in 1965 at the Moscow Great Hall. The Debussy (Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune) is dreamy but with a clarity that struck me anew in Mravinsky's hands. The Bartok has a Russian spirit that seems to come from Prokofiev at least as we hear the work (Music for strings, percussion and celesta) here. The Stravinsky ballet (Apollo) remains, for me, unlovable - as much of a challenge as Agon.


Symphonies 6 and 10 are given with the raw power you would expect. No. 6's devastating Largo (which I find amongst the most powerful documents in all Shostakovich's output) comes across very strongly in this 1972 performance. The other two movements always strike me as real incongruities. No. 10 is done with resentful abrasion and a scorching blast.

VOL. 10.

Lastly there is a collection of Wagner chunks - concert-pieces of the type often anthologised on disc by Stokowski, Boult and a host of others. The Meistersinger prelude recorded in Mravinsky's final (and on this showing rather tired) year (1982) with the Leningraders is rather heavy of plod though lightened momentarily by the piercing trumpets that crown the closing bars. A drowsy numbness oozes though the veins of the Tannhauser overture also (rec 1978). More impressive is the indomitable swing and serene weave of the Lohengrin Act I prelude recorded in 1978. The starry strings are the epitome of a romantic spirit that was to hang over music into the 1930s. The slightly enervating air which cloys these pages is blown to the four winds by one of the most explosive Act III Lohengrin preludes (rec live in 1965) with devastating trumpets and rippling wind instruments. This one has to be heard! A slack Siegfried's Funeral March disappoints despite heaven-clawing brass. This piece should positively spark and flame with crackling Brucknerian tension. In Mravinsky's hands it does not. A funeral march does not need to sleep. The disc returns to glorious form with another 1965 recording; this time of The Ride of the Valkyries. The strings shriek and wheel around the skies and the brass, blackened by battle, rush in dark legions across the landscape. The pace may well have been too much for the brass players and loosens up towards the end.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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