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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

Russian Spectacular
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Hamlet, Fantasy-Overture, Op. 67 (1888) [18:18]*
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Russlan and Ludmilla: Overture (1842) [5:17]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov)
A Night on the Bare Mountain (1867/86) [10:51]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34 (1887) [15:31]
Russian Easter Festival Overture, Op. 36 (1888) [14:49]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880) [6:17]
Prince Igor: Overture (orch. Glazunov) (1869/87) [10:54]
Hallé Orchestra, *London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. Free Trade Hall, Manchester, January 1988; *Barking Town Hall, November 1974
Experience Classicsonline

There's no "saving the best for last" here - the best thing in CfP's program is the Hamlet overture that opens it. The grave dignity with which Vernon Handley invests the opening paragraph  presages a reading that brings out the full character of each episode, with a controlled intensity in the turbulent passages. The oboe's "Ophelia" theme (7:09) is conventionally plaintive here - Markevitch (Philips), perhaps with Shakespeare in mind, adopts a more nervous manner - but it's difficult to argue with the gracious uplift of the love music proper at 8:32. Markevitch uses the return of the agitated string figures at 16:17 to suggest that the drama is winding down, which Handley misses, but the latter's coda rounds things off convincingly. Save for the slightly scrambled tutti outburst at 4:58, the LPO plays handsomely, with full-bodied, vibrant tone, and the recording is deeper and more forward than I had remembered from the original LP. This definitely belongs on the short list for this comparatively neglected tone poem, alongside Markevitch, Stokowski (Everest) and the heavier-handed Bernstein (Sony).
The rest of the program, recorded rather later, isn't quite as fetching. The orchestral sound isn't as vivid or "present," except in the brass: this might be a function of changes in recording techniques and styles, but the difference more likely inheres in the actual playing. The competent Hallé Orchestra lacks the LPO's reserves of color and power, producing a compact but comparatively homogeneous sonority. I also suspect that the intervening thirteen years had tempered Handley's youthful energy with a more circumspect moderation.
Such moderation isn't necessarily bad. At his best, the conductor's no-nonsense musicality and avoidance of flash reminded me of Eugene Ormandy's way with this repertoire. Thus, in the Russlan and Ludmilla overture - sometimes dismissed as a mere display vehicle - Handley's tempo allows the strings a fighting chance at playing all the notes, and gives the second, lyrical theme some room to breathe. And A Night on the Bare Mountain, while less hair-raising than some, benefits from his judicious balancing of forward drive and rhythmic weight.
There are some lovely things in the Prince Igor overture as well. Handley relaxes his basic tempo generously for the horn theme, which sings expressively, with smooth if not quite velvety tone, and the "hand-off" to the flute at 3:56 matches perfectly. When this theme returns at 8:36, however, one really misses the warmer LPO cello sound, though the Hallé cellos are serene. And the recurring brass "pyramids" aren't quite evenly balanced throughout the range - the trumpets are weaker than the trombones and tuba.
In the Russian Easter Overture, Handley keeps the higher textures light and shimmery and inflects the themes with character. But the performance as a whole seems restrained until he steps up the tempo in the home stretch (13:33), when it suddenly comes to life.
Elsewhere, more rigor was needed along with the moderation. Rhythmically, the Capriccio espagnol is a bit loose and unemphatic - firmer stressing would have elicited more of a strut from the opening, and the last movement's dogged tutti-ish progress becomes grim and unvaried. And In the Steppes of Central Asia ambles along too casually: a bit more breadth would have allowed for greater atmosphere and more nuance.
So what to do? If you're looking for Hamlet divorced from its customary discmate - Francesca da Rimini, which I find tiresome - this one is excellent, and the rest of this admittedly generous program constitutes an attractive listening sequence. You should turn elsewhere for the other big overtures, however.
Ansermet's eloquent, glowing Prince Igor has recently reappeared on an Eloquence reissue; it's also worth tracking down Solti's Berlin account (Decca), where the peculiar mismatch of conductor and orchestra strikes sparks. For the Russian Easter, find Barenboim's Chicago version (DG).
Stephen Francis Vasta



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