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The Russian masters of great emotions in music
Full contents list at end of review
DOCUMENTS 600158 [10 CDs: 664:04]

This box set of 10 CDs is entitled The Russian masters of great emotions in music. Its cover then appears to list those “masters” as the various featured performers - Oistrakh, Horowitz, Richter, Rostropovich, Heifetz, Rubinstein, Benedetti Michelangeli, Milstein and others.
Well, I guess that, if you really wanted to stretch a point, you might argue that, as a youthful subject of the Russian Tsar, Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein was some sort of honorary "Russian"... However, are we now supposed to believe, then, that Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, usually considered to have been Italian born and bred, was, in reality, some sort of deep-cover Soviet mole?
We must instead presume, I imagine, that that “Russian masters” tag was actually intended to refer to the various composers who are represented on these discs rather than the performers. With that careless presentational howler getting us off to a somewhat discouraging start, matters are not really helped by a back cover that misses the opportunity of listing the contents in any useful detail. It offers, instead, a couple of paragraphs of anodyne tosh: "The [Russian] people's love for their vast country, their longing for freedom from the yoke of tyranny and painful deprivations had engendered such powerful emotions that these could only [my own emphasis] be expressed in music." Is that really, in any case, even accurate? Don’t I dimly recall a revolution or two in the year 1917 that gave pretty dramatic – and distinctly un-musical – expression to those aforesaid "powerful emotions"?
Instead of that meaningless - or even positively misleading - nonsense, its design and marketing teams might have made a far stronger case for this box set by majoring on its contents, for what we have here is a collection of some very desirable performances indeed. They range in date from the early 1950s to the 1990s but, as the detailed contents list makes clear, the bulk come from the 1950s, a decade with some claim to be the greatest in the history of recorded classical music.
With ten discs to cover, containing no fewer that 51 tracks from 14 different composers ranging from Glinka (born 1804) to Kabalevsky (died 1987), I have no room to give an exhaustive survey but will instead indicate some of the undoubted highlights to be found, many of which have been among the top recommendations for many years.
Perhaps the most interesting track on CD1 is Antal Dorati's account of the 1812 overture, though in some ways its interest lies less in what it is than in what it is not. This is not the famous 1958 Mercury Living Presence stereo demonstration-quality recording (434 360-2) that eventually sold an amazing two million copies in its LP format. Rather, it is the mono recording produced four years earlier that, while utilising the same Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and University of Minnesota brass band, incorporated different bells - New Haven's Yale Memorial Carillon rather than 1958's Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon in New York - and, I think, a different cannon. While there is little if anything to choose between the two versions from a musical point of view, 1954's mono sound is certainly both less immediate and noticeably more mellow than that boasted by its famous successor. The bells still come through effectively, however, in the final climax. While the cannon may no longer threaten the longevity of your loudspeakers, it certainly sounds powerful enough to blow the head off any marauding French cuirassier careless enough to ride within range.
Other good things on this all-Tchaikovsky first disc include Dorati's Capriccio Italien, also dating from 1954. There is also a thrusting, vigorous 1956 account of the Little Russian symphony from Georg Solti and the - admittedly rather rough and ready - Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, in which the brass players in particular seem to be having a whale of a time. This is the only recording that allows the conductor’s admirers to hear him in that work (review).
CD2 is of most interest for a 1958 Clifford Curzon recording of Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto. Georg Solti once again lends support, though this time he leads the markedly more accomplished Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The sound is quite bright, even if, in the overall balance, the piano is perhaps a little recessed. Curzon's enduring reputation is based primarily on his Mozart interpretations, but here he demonstrates equally fine, if perhaps less distinctively individual, credentials in a great Romantic warhorse.
The emphasis on concertos continues on to CD3, though we temporary move the spotlight to the violin as the solo instrument. The Kabalevsky (review) and Khatchaturian (review) concertos, both conducted by their composers and recorded in the mid-1950s, provide appropriate showcases for David Oistrakh, who was the dedicatee and first performer of the Khatchaturian. These are as near definitive accounts of the scores that we are likely to hear and, while sound quality was often an issue with Soviet-produced recordings, what we have here is more than serviceable. My memory of an old 1960s Oistrakh LP of the Glazunov concerto, on the other hand, is of distinctly ropey sound (review). Perhaps that’s why Nathan Milstein's recording has been selected instead. The latter is, in any case, justified entirely on its own terms and the soloist’s lofty, aristocratic and utterly beguiling performance offers us the opportunity of hearing a rather different style of violin playing (review).
With identical timings to the exact second in every movement, I assume that CD4's 1956 mono account of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique symphony from Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra is the famous one recorded for Deutsche Grammophon in mono during a European tour that same year; not the stereo remake (review). That DG performance, reissued a few years ago as part of a 2-CD set (447 423-2) in The Originals series, certainly sounds identical to this new release, although Mravinsky and the Leningraders were recorded so frequently in this work over the years that it's just conceivable - if not, I think, very likely - that these might be two separate performances from the same year. It's on occasions like this, particularly when dealing with the rather murky history of the Soviet recording industry, that this box's lack of adequate documentation becomes somewhat frustrating. What remains, though, is the performance: a strikingly incisive example of the stunning levels of execution that Mravinsky was achieving in Leningrad after 18 years of his, by all accounts, autocratically chilly regime.
CD5's focus is Mussorgsky with recordings of both the original piano version and Ravel's later orchestration of Pictures at an exhibition. The latter provides us with a puzzle, for, although the box set's listing claims that this is a 1959 recording from the Philharmonia Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan, I cannot find any other mention of a Philharmonia/Karajan Pictures from that year. There was, however, a 1956 recording from those forces. Described in Richard Osborne's authoritative Herbert von Karajan: a life in music [London, 1998] as "thrillingly played and spectacularly engineered" (op. cit. p.422), it was included in an 88-CD set, Karajan - complete EMI recordings 1946-1984, vol.1 orchestral works (50999 5 12038 2 5), released in 2008. I would have been inclined to assume that the new box set's "1959" is a simple typo – except for the fact that the length of its performance is 34:35 while the 1956 account is significantly shorter at 33:16. I can only assume, therefore, that our CD5 does contain an entirely different recording - though one that is still characterised by that aforementioned exceptional playing and engineering. As such, it is well worth acquiring, even though it has been annoyingly burned to the disc as a single uninterrupted track.
The accompanying piano version of Pictures is, thankfully, multi-tracked. It also features no less than Sviatoslav Richter as the performer. There are at least four surviving accounts of his Pictures dating from 1958 – from Budapest, Sofia, Kiev and Moscow. This live account, in rather murky sound and with some audience noise, is, I think, the inspired and powerfully driven Sofia performance, regarded by many as the finest of the lot. Richter's powerful and authoritative playing entirely justifies its inclusion in this box and adds yet again to this set’s desirability.
The set’s sixth and seventh CDs take a close look at Rachmaninoff, a true “master of great emotions in music” if ever there was one. There are classic and self-recommending accounts of three of the four piano concertos. Richter is soloist in the second (review), Horowitz in the third (review) and Michelangeli in the fourth (review) - his “most familiar and most admired” recording, according to one newspaper obituary, (see here). While Horowitz’s recording is finely engineered, the sound balance favours Michelangeli and, more especially, Richter at the expense of the orchestras in theirs. Nonetheless, with such accomplished pianism on display, one can delight in hearing these artists at the peak of their powers. The Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini may be found on CD8, by the way, in a 1947 account – the oldest on all ten discs – from another titan of the keyboard, Arthur Rubinstein (review). That recording begins well enough, but the strings are exposed as somewhat undernourished whenever Rachmaninoff’s score sets them off at full Romantic mode. It demonstrates, thereby, both the inadequacies of recording prior to the technical innovations of the 1950s, as well as the sound of the Philharmonia Orchestra before Karajan got his powerful hands on it.
The undeniable impression that someone with extensive musical knowledge has been responsible for compiling this set is reinforced by the inclusion on CD7 of Oistrakh’s compelling account of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto. This 1954 recording has always been a collectors’ favourite and was eventually re-released as one of EMI Classics’s Great recordings of the century (5628882, review). My colleague Rob Barnett’s description of Oistrakh’s playing as “precisely etched and joyously breathtaking” is spot-on and this account did much to establish the concerto’s position in the repertoire. The sound quality remains remarkably clear for its age. If you are not familiar with this performance, you are in for a real musical treat.
Solomon’s recording of Scriabin’s Piano Concerto was another Great recording of the century (68321) and, at least for the soloist’s performance, fully deserved that accolade. Just as in the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody considered earlier, the late 1940s sound will be a drawback for some. Listening 65 years later, it is difficult to say whether the orchestra itself or less than sophisticated engineering is responsible, but the Philharmonia’s violins can sound scrawny and undernourished, most noticeably in the opening allegro where Scriabin’s lushly sweeping melodies make a distinctly underwhelming impact. Matters improve in the following movements, but even though the skilful Issay Dobrowen offers typically sympathetic support, one wonders whether Karajan - at that point just beginning his association with the Philharmonia - might have produced a fuller and more convincing tone from those strings, especially if recorded just a few years later (review).
The two Tchaikovsky items on CD8 are worth specific mention. Heifetz’s recording of the violin concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner (review) still sounds remarkably good for its age and demonstrates his unsurpassed technique. Heifetz is sometimes accused of emotional coldness but I certainly detect none of that here. Meanwhile, the Rostropovich/Rozhdestvensky Variations on a rococo theme is most definitely not a cold account, by any stretch of the imagination (review), as the soloist offers us moments that are variously playful (Var.1), dreamily soulful (Var.3) and virtuosic: Var.7 where he drives the poor conductor and orchestra on to their utmost limits. Odd coughs betray this as a live recording but certainly do nothing to detract from the self-evident artistry on display.
The interest in the Shostakovich items that make up much of CD9 lies in the fact that the composer himself was involved in the performances, as solo pianist in both concertos and duettist with his son Maxim in the Concertino. In demonstrating, for instance, how, by the 1950s, Shostakovich-the-performer was adopting generally slower tempi for the first concerto than Shostakovich-the-composer had originally specified in the 1930s, these are fascinating accounts that have a lot to tell the careful listener. Sviatoslav Richter’s 1959 account of Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto is justly regarded as one of the finest versions ever recorded – it won a Grand Prix du Disque and DG have more recently selected it as one of The Originals (449 744-2). It rounds off CD9 with a flourish of the highest quality (review).
CD10 is something of a potpourri, with only one substantial track – the Prince Igor overture – and most of the other items coming in at around the two to four minute mark. Yet even among these mostly insubstantial lollipops there is a great deal to enjoy. Georg Solti gets things off to a flying start with the Ruslan and Ludmilla overture. This is not the well-known 1966 London Symphony Orchestra version (Decca 417 689-2) (review), but it certainly fizzes along with equal zest, if just a little more resonance in the sound. Michael Rabin is the deft soloist in Heifetz’s arrangement of Flight of the bumble bee. Ernest Ansermet demonstrates his expertise with ballet scores in music from The Nutcracker and Swan Lake and there is much more (review). This is a delightful disc to dip into and, in all likelihood, you will discover a juicy plum or two.
You will have gathered by now that, its unprepossessing budget supermarket-shelf appearance notwithstanding, this box set gave me a great deal of pleasure. I am ashamed to say that I had never encountered Richter’s 1960 account of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto before now – and the treasures here are so diverse that I imagine that many others will also make their own new discoveries. As I mentioned earlier, someone has clearly taken the greatest care in selecting these recordings, many of which I have not had space to consider, and, at its bargain price - currently less than £15 on the internet - this box offers an economical means to acquaint yourself with some classic recordings or simply to fill a few holes in your collection. It is a real winner.
Rob Maynard

Masterwork Index
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an exhibition
Prokofiev: Violin concerto 1
Rachmaninov: Piano concertos
Shostakovich: Piano concerto 1
Tchaikovsky: Piano concerto 1 ~~ Symphony 6 ~~ Violin concerto
Full Contents List
CD 1 [73:58]
Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Waltz from Serenade for strings op.48 (1880) [3:54]
Capriccio Italien op.45 (1880) [14:26]
Marche Slav op.31 (1876) [9:28]
1812 overture op.49 (1880) [15:12]
Symphony no.2 in C minor, op.17 Little Russian (1872) [30:45]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch (op.48)
Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra/Antal Dorati (op.45 and op.49)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Yehudi Menuhin (op.31)
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Georg Solti (op.17)
rec. 1954 (op.45 and op.49), 1956 (op.17), 1957 (op.48) and 1994 (op.31); venues not specified
CD 2 [70:01]
Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano concerto no.1 in B minor, op.23 (1874-1875) [34:45]
Piano concerto no.2 in G major, op.44 (1879-1880) [35:16]
Clifford Curzon (piano) (op.23)
Shura Cherkassky (piano) (op.44)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Georg Solti (op.23)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Richard Kraus (op.44)
rec. 1955 (op.44) and 1958 (op.23); venues not specified
CD 3 [69:24]
Dimitri KABALEVSKY (1904-1987)
Violin concerto in C major, op.48 (1948) [15:46]
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Violin concerto in A minor, op. 82 (1904) [18:25]
Aram KHATCHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Violin concerto in D minor (1940) [35:07]
David Oistrakh (violin) (Kabalevsky and Khatchaturian)
Nathan Milstein (Glazunov)
USSR Symphony Orchestra/Dimitri Kabalevsky (Kabalevsky)
RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/William Steinberg (Glazunov)
USSR State Philharmonic Orchestra/Aram Khatchaturian (Khatchaturian)
rec. 1949 (Glazunov), 1955 (?) (Khatchaturian) and 1956 (?) (Kabalevsky); venues not specified
CD 4 [72:47]
Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony no.6 in B minor, op.74 (1893) [44:36]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Polovtsian dances from Prince Igor (1887) [11:42]
In the steppes of Central Asia (1880) [6:00]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
A night on bald mountain (1867) [10:21]
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Evgeny Mravinsky (Tchaikovsky)
ORTF Choir and Orchestra/Igor Markevitch (Borodin dances)
RIAS Symphony Orchestra/Ferenc Fricsay (Borodin Steppes)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Georg Solti (Mussorgsky)
rec. 1954 (Borodin Steppes), 1956 (Tchaikovsky), 1957 (Borodin dances) and 1959 (Mussorgsky); venues not specified
CD 5 [65:07]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an exhibition for piano (1874) [30:25]
Pictures at an exhibition orch. Ravel (1922) [34:35]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 1958 (piano) and 1959 (orchestra); venues not specified
CD 6 [79:47]
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Prelude in G major, op.32 no.5 (1910) [3:32]
Prelude in G minor, op.23 no.5 (1901) [3:59]
Piano concerto no.2 in C minor, op.18 (1901) [34:35]
Piano concerto no.3 in D minor, op.30 (1909) [37:24]
Geza Anda (piano) (preludes)
Sviatoslav Richter (op.18)
Vladimir Horowitz (op.30)
Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra/Stanislaw Wislocki
RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
rec. 1951 (op.30), 1956 (preludes) and 1960 (op.18); venues not specified
CD 7 [72:53]
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Piano concerto no.4 in G minor, op.40 (1926, rev. 1941) [24:34]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Violin concerto no.1 in D major, op.19 (1923) [21:21]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Piano concerto in F sharp minor, op.20 (1896) [26:50]
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano) (Rachmaninoff)
David Oistrakh (violin) (Prokofiev)
Solomon (piano) (Scriabin)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Ettore Gracis (Rachmaninoff)
London Symphony Orchestra/Lovro von Matacic (Prokofiev)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Issay Dobrowen
rec. 1949 (Scriabin), 1954 (Prokofiev) and 1957 (Rachmaninoff); venues not specified
CD 8 [69:47]
Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin concerto in D major, op.35 (1878) [29:34]
Variations on a rococo theme, op.33 (1877) [17:50]
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, op.43 (1934) [22:14]
Jascha Heifetz (violin)
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)
Arthur Rubinstein (piano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner (Tchaikovsky concerto)
USSR Symphony Orchestra/Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (Tchaikovsky variations)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Walter Susskind (Rachmaninoff)
rec. 1947 (Rachmaninoff), 1957 (Tchaikovsky concerto) and 1960 (Tchaikovsky variations); venues not specified
CD 9 [76:43]
Dimitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Concerto no.1 for piano, trumpet and string orchestra in C major, op.35 (1933) [20:16]
Piano concerto no.2 in E major, op.192 (1957) [16:03]
Concertino for two pianos, op.94 (1935) [8:00]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Étude no.11 in B flat minor, op.8 (1894) [4:09]
Poeme Vers la flamme, op.72 (1914) [5:16]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano concerto no.5 in G major, op.55 (1932) [22:48]
Dimitri Shostakovich (piano) (Shostakovich op. 35, op.94 and op.192)
Ivan Volovnik (trumpet) (Shostakovich op.35)
Maxim Shostakovich (piano) (Shostakovich op.94)
Vladimir Sofronitzky (piano) (Scriabin)
Sviatoslav Richter (piano) (Prokofiev)
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Samuil Samosud (Shostakovich op.35)
USSR Large Radio Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Gauk (Shostakovich op.192)
Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra/Witold Rowicki (Prokofiev)
rec. 1955 (Shostakovich op.35), 1956 (Shostakovich op.94), 1958 (Shostakovich op.192 and Scriabin) and 1959 (Prokofiev); venues not specified
CD 10 [77:37]
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla (1842) [4:55]
Aram KHATCHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Sabre dance from Gayaneh (1942) [2:27]
Reinhold GLIERE (1875-1956)
Russian sailors' dance from The red poppy (1927) [3:30]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Flight of the bumble bee (1900) [1:15]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Overture to Prince Igor (1887) [11:36]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Prelude to Act 1 of Khovanschina (1880) [5:25]
Dance of the Persian slaves from Khovanschina (1880) [6:47]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Russian dance from Petrushka (1911, rev. 1947) [2:38]
Parasha's aria from Mavra (1922) [4:03]
Pas de deux from The fairy's kiss (1928, rev. 1950) [4:14]
Circus polka for a young elephant (1942) [3:55]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Masks from Romeo and Juliet (1935) [2:08]
Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
March of the toy soldiers from The Nutcracker (1892) [2:07]
Waltz of the flowers from The Nutcracker (1892) [6:23]
Trepak from The Nutcracker (1892) [1:06]
Waltz from The Sleeping Beauty (1889) [4:14]
The swans from Swan lake (1877) [2:39]
Dance of the cygnets from Swan Lake (1877) [1:16]
Waltz from Eugene Onegin (1879) [6:11]
Michael Rabin (violin) (Rimsky-Korsakov)
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello) (Stravinsky Mavra and The Fairy's Kiss)
Alexander Dedyukhin (piano) (Stravinsky Mavra and The fairy's kiss)
Andor Foldes (piano) (Stravinsky Circus polka)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Georg Solti (Glinka, Borodin and Mussorgsky)
Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra/Carmen Dragon (Khatchaturian and Gliere)
Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra/Felix Slatkin (Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (Stravinsky Petrushka)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Simonov (Prokofiev)
His Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (Tchaikovsky March of the toy soldiers)
Suisse Romande Orchestra/Ernest Ansermet (Tchaikovsky Waltz of the flowers and Dance of the cygnets)
Philharmonic Orchestra of France/Philippe Vandeau (Tchaikovsky Trepak)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan (Tchaikovsky Sleeping beauty and The swans)
rec. 1951 (Stravinsky Circus polka), 1957 (Stravinsky Russian dance and Tchaikovsky March of the tin soldiers), 1958 (Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin), 1959 (Glinka, Khatchaturian, Gliere, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky Waltz of the flowers, Tchaikovsky Sleeping beauty, Tchaikovsky The swans, Tchaikovsky Dance of the cygnets), 1960 (Stravinsky Mavra and The fairy's kiss, Tchaikovsky Trepak), 1993 (Prokofiev); venues not specified