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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Back again - with no pain, 15 Nov 2009
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This review is from: Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 1, Caprice Bohemien, Scherzo in D minor (Audio CD)
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!
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 29 Apr 2012 17:40:13 BDT
Fully agree with you. Pltnev's is indeed the only recording of this symphony to come close to Svetlanov's, although I much prefer the earlier recording on Alto.

In reply to an earlier post on 29 Apr 2012 19:31:11 BDT
Steen Mencke says:
Hi there Richard.

Glad you like the review and agree ... mostly. One doesn't find much support for Pletnev in this repertoire, so very reassuring to know that it does exist.

I don't know the Alto recording you refer to; Amazon only recognizes this one with Svetlanov from 1995 (and the metallic, unpleasant one made in the early 70's by Melodya). I went to Alto's own site, but there Svetlanov is only listed as conducting works by Myaskovsky; the only recording of Rachmaninov's first is by Pavel Kogan. Could you be a bit more specific re. what recording you mean exactly. I should like to hear it if possible.

SM

In reply to an earlier post on 16 Nov 2013 12:07:03 GMT
Last edited by the author on 16 Nov 2013 12:09:34 GMT
Sincerest apologies for the delay in replying I've only just found your request! The original recording was on HMV Melodiya LP ASD2471 and distorted badly at the Gong stroke just before the Coda of the finale. My recording is on Regis RRC1247 which I think is still available (the Alto one is the same recording). Beg, steal or borrow it, as it's a shattering experience. This is music 'Red in tooth and claw' eons removed from the 2nd Symphony or Piano Concerto and totally changed my perception of Rachmaninov as a composer, when he was so derided by 'real' music lovers who couldn't sneer enough about his music. I must have at least a dozen recordings in my collection of this work but this is the one I return to again and again. Much of the 'problem' with this work stems from the tinkering about with the scoring (which is stunning) and the misguided 'additions' made to it by certain conductors - particularly the addition of the Glockenspiel (Ormandy) in the first movement where it is NOT wanted. I recently heard a couple of performances here in Birmingham where the conductor had a bad attack of 'Cymbalitis' and added rolls and clashes all over the place, particularly in the Scherzo (but he did, at least, avoid the Glockenspiel). Rachmaninov knew full well what he was doing when he scored this symphony and he certainly didn't need any assistance. The recording of the Symphony is coupled with 'The Isle of the Dead' (originally, in the UK at least, on HMV ASD2482). That recording was coupled with Svetlanov's shattering 1966 recording of Scriabin's 'Poem of Ecstasy' which is also now available on Regis (you can tell the recording as the Horn player, 5 bars after fig.39, hits on the wrong not and plays it as a grace note onto the right one.

In reply to an earlier post on 17 Nov 2013 15:11:45 GMT
Last edited by the author on 17 Nov 2013 15:16:47 GMT
Steen Mencke says:
Hi Richard,

Yes, well ... better late than never, as the saying goes, and good advise - tardy as it may be - is always much appreciated.

In the meantime I got a hold of a box (on the label "Svetlanov" (?!) no less) with the man himself conducting most of Rachmaninov's music for orchestra. It's featuring The State Academic Symphony Orchestra (not the usual USSR State SO - though it could well be largely the same musicians), and generally the playing is very good - though the sound quality as expected is a bit thin and the final drum beats of the symphony seriously overloads the tape. The record company flatly refuses to state the recording dates in the booklet ... apart from the rather laconic footnote "recordings 1954-1987" which I would probably have guessed anyway. I'd say most were from the latter part of that period, though. Svetlanov produces some of his usual "don't spare the horses" performances, and all in all it's not a bad set.

Given the fact, however, that the issues you recommend on Regis are all available at a very reasonable price, I have ordered both discs and the symphonic dances - blindly trusting your impeccable tastes ;-).

I'll let you know how the experiment turns out.

Best regards,
SM

In reply to an earlier post on 17 Nov 2013 23:17:17 GMT
Last edited by the author on 17 Nov 2013 23:21:17 GMT
The box set you have are later recordings. The version of the 1st symphony is almost as good as the 1966 version but, to my mind, just lacks the visceral excitement of that recording. Have you heard the Kondrashin recording of the 'Symphonic Dances? Because if you haven't I would recommend you get it. My recording on a Melodiya/BMG CD 74321 32046 2 (originally on EMI LP ASD2488) is incredible. Again there is an excitement, particularly in the last of the dances which has never been surpassed. The coupling is another fabulous Rachmaninov recording - of 'The Bells'. The soprano may be a bit pinched and shrill but I can accept that in a performance as outstanding as this one is. (It got a lousy review from one Basil Ashmore in Hi-Fi News & Record Review when it first came out). It knocks spots off the recent Rattle recordings which greatly disappointed me (the percussion all but disappears in the last of the dances). If you like Prokofiev and you want a recording of the op.74 October Cantata go for Kondrashin. The version is cut (Kondrashin was not allowed to record the two 'Stalin' movements) and he reprises the 2nd movement (Philosophers) to close the work but the performance is so stunning that doesn't matter, never has the 'Revolution' movement (no.6) sounded like it does here. The CD (Melodiya 10-00981) may be deleted now but it's worth seeking out. There is no other recorded performance like it! Hope you enjoy the Rachmaninov as much as I do.
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