Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

Reviews from other months
PIOTR TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Manfred (1885) 58:11 Romeo and Juliet (1869, rev 1880) 18:49 The Tempest (1875) 23:11 Serenade for Strings (1880) 33:08 Capriccio Italien (1880) 14:18 USSR SO/Evgeny Svetlanov recorded 1970 for all but Manfred (1967) BMG Melodiya 74321 34164 2 Twofer series CD1: [77:11] CD2 [70:54] [148:05]



These potent recordings date from pre-perestroika days and preserve a beefy big-band stereo sound. The Svetlanov discs have enjoyed various avatars on Western reissues, the most memorable being, during the days of the LP, the EMI Melodiya series. This Svetlanov Manfred became a mainstay of the catalogue. At the time it was first issued (at the end of the 1960s) the competition was not thick on the ground. Nowadays modern and historical recordings are much more easily available.

So, two unfamiliar works and three familiar ones.

The single major work is the Manfred Symphony written between Mazeppa and Sleeping Beauty, the 4th and 5th symphonies (11 years separate the two numbered symphonies). The Melodiya Svetlanov is now more than thirty years old but this presents few problems. The sound is just a little fevered and stressed but this matches the performance. Also I wondered at the possible pulling back of recording levels by the original engineers towards end of the first movement where saturation threatens distortion. The orchestra plays as if possessed. Listen to the vicious unison attack by the strings in the first movement. The doomed and balletic spirits are in contest in first movement but bleak hopeless heroism is the dominant partner. Certainly dance pervades the second where the woodwind writing provided the mulch for Sibelius's own woodwind style. The third movement is a rocking andante which uses a tune which recalls the Beatles song Norwegian Wood as well as providing a reference point back to the nationalist school from which Tchaikovsky can seem quite remote. There is the iron glitter of the harp in finale and a fiery furnace of strings at 16:00. The grandiose organ registers as a colossal presence. This is the most nationalist of the mature symphonies with cross-cuts to Borodin, Balakirev and Mussorgsky.

The Svetlanov recording has quite properly been highly esteemed in the classical music recording newsgroup. It is a 'sleeper' and we are the ones who should wake up to its high tension poetry and indomitable spirit.

Romeo and Juliet is given an urgent and plangently romantic performance outfaced only by the Stokowski Dell'Arte CD. The burred and closely-balanced harp swirls register with considerable drama as do the typically strident, stormy and heavens-clamant trumpets. I rather look forward to hearing Svetlanov's Francesca da Rimini.

The Tempest (inspired by Shakespeare) is not one of the better known tone poems. After an initial seascape suggested by high-breathing violins comes the first lashes of the cold wind of the storm then a blaring trumpet fanfare. The notes mention Rimsky's Sadko and there are many Rimskian moments in the orchestration. The whipping and stinging maelstrom of the strings at 7:30 is brilliantly handled by the violins. If you would like to take a less than obvious sample try The Tempest from about 10:00 to 11:42.

The Serenade for Strings is treated to a tautly disciplined performance which has great attack and unanimity and a pliant emotional surge and eddy. The movements remind us how influential Tchaikovsky was for the several generations who followed him. Sibelius was clearly deeply indebted especially in his earlier years. The balalaika evocations in the last and fleetest movement are especially memorable.

Italy was important to Tchaikovsky and although Capriccio Italien is often written off as a vulgar postcard Svetlanov does not sell it short or cheap from the fruitily abrasive bugle calls to the perky woodwind work and the almost caricatured rush of the closing bars. Pin-sharp attack is evident everywhere; try the example at 10:55.

Decent notes by Sigrid Neef: English, German and French.

Good artwork and design distinguish the whole of the BMG-Melodiya series.

One technical point. The stems on which the double CDs are mounted provide a secure home for each disc. They are however very tight and this makes it difficult to remove the discs. This is common to the entire 'twofer' BMG-Melodiya series. I do not really have a complaint about this as I prefer these stems to the fragile plastic petal versions which break very easily.

Compliments to BMG for using these single thickness CD cases.

Recommended recordings for anyone wanting to return to the wellspring of Russian inspiration and tired of the 'smooth' and international Tchaikovsky. I am very fond of various Rozhdestvensky recordings in this repertoire and of the Dorati Philips/Polygram collections but the Svetlanov taps directly into the intensity and drama of the music without being too indulgently lachrymose. A recommended and expansively-timed set, valuable for reverberantly recorded as well as emotionally unbridled interpretations. If the sound does not have the smooth virtues of the latest recordings from the big name orchestras and music directors they instead have a rough life and vigour which seems to have slipped between the fingers of most of the current generation.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

Return to Index