Make no mistake - this is the real thing! Svetlanov maintained that only Russians could really play Rachmaninov (and here he means emotionally) and on this re-visited series of the symphonies with an orchestra and record company that can both really deliver he makes a very strong case for his point of view. This is large-scale Rachmaninov with the Russian rawness tamed but not eliminated.
The speeds are generally, but not always, forward moving, the dynamics are wide and the rhythms, so important to Russian and all folk-derived music, dig deep and bite hard. The climax to the last movement takes no prisoners!
The only other performance that I have heard, and I have owned a great number of respected recordings over the years, that carries comparable conviction is the one with Ashkenazy with the Concertgebouw in uncharacteristically full cry and playing like born Russians. It is very well recorded by Decca. Ashkenazy's full series is now available as an advantageously priced set and is practically obligatory listening. Significantly he takes a full 8 minutes less overall than Svetlanov and is faster in all four movements, especially the first and third. This simply illustrates that Svetlanov obtains his power and drive by different means.
The fill-ups on this disc are both worth owning and the similarly dated Caprice Bohemien makes for particularly enjoyable listening.
This is an essential disc to own for anyone interested in a really Russian interpretation with that sort of uninhibited emotional fire. Fortunately the recording is able to contain all this and as such is an enormous improvement over the earlier set which sounds far too raw for my personal enjoyment.
on 15 November 2009
Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002) was already a big gun back in the time of red flags and party days (and it wasn't the fun kind of party either!). Hailed in his native land as a hero of the people, his star also soared in France where he was seen as the only legitimate heir to the mantle of the legendary Mravinsky, and his years with the USSR Symphony Orchestra in the 1960's and 70's were active and productive to say the least. Hardly a note of Russian music escaped the swish of his baton, and mostly he did a fine job or better. Inspirational fire and tempi that would make the audience break a sweat was his stock and trade, and rarely did you have a dull day with his Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov. My only problem with his releases always was that technically inferior (disastrous, more often than not!) recordings pressed in vinyl the record company must have found in the local scrap yard, left me with a splitting headache after a couple of movements. I know one is supposed to suffer for art, but even so ...
In 1991 his orchestra became The Symphony Orchestra of the Federation of Russia (same musicians ... fewer party badges, I assume), and though the sound is still a bit congested at times and the treble a tad shrill here and there, wonders certainly have been worked, and Aspirin is now no longer an obligatory side dish for these recordings. Svetlanov too has mellowed with age, and like a good port he has gained in complexity but lost very little body. The tempi are less hell-for-leather these days, but sparks still can - and do - fly when called for; and boy! are they called for in the finale of this Rachmaninov's first and most original symphony. Svetlanov obviously loves this work, warts an' all, and his is the kind of achievement that really makes you wish the composer was still around to listen! From the mischievous gypsy rhythms of the scherzo, over the darkly glowing larghetto with its choral-like passages, to the world-shattering climax of the finale Svetlanov just simply refuses to put a foot wrong. Only Pletnev and his soloist-orchestra - the RNO - come close to delivering the overall effect of this recording, and still what they gain in clarity and intellectual insight Svetlanov trumps in spades with an emotional intensity so Russian it makes your hairs stand on end.
I had the good(?) fortune to get a ticket to Gergiev's performance of this symphony at the London Proms last September, but his vision doesn't hold a candle to Svetlanov's and I shall not soon forgive his (Gergiev's) profoundly lackluster conclusion, that constituted a downright bucket of water right on the "fuoco" of the Allegro con.
I currently own eight versions of this music, and they all have their merits, but for a reading of this almost lost symphony that has both brain and b.... - guts, Svetlanov's is about as good as it gets. The two complementary tracks: the Caprice Bohémien and the Scherzo in D minor are rarely heard and all but never recorded. One can only wonder why!