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Vasily Sergeyevich KALINNIKOV (1866-1901)
Symphony No.1 in G minor (1894-5) [35:20]
Aleksander Konstantinovich GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Symphony No.5 in B flat major Op.55 (1895) [34:20]
Aram Il’ich KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Masquerade Suite (1941) [18:31]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Kazuki Yamada
rec. Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic, 19-21 June 2012
EXTON OVCL004872 SACD [35:20 + 52.51]

I was particularly pleased to be sent this recording for review. It contains two of my favourite Russian Symphonies and is played by one of my favourite orchestras. This is a unique and generous coupling – but a logical one too – the two symphonies dating from exactly the same year. I suspect the producers were hoping to squeeze this onto a single disc. If so their hopes were dashed, Yamada takes 35:20 for the Kalinnikov, 34:20 for the Glazunov and 18:31 for the Khachaturian. Hence this is a two disc set — the Kalinnikov alone on disc 1 — presented in a single width jewel case. The downside is that this is being sold in the UK around the £24.00 mark which makes it rather expensive for under 90 minutes of music.
The major pluses of the set are the playing of the Czech Philharmonic, who on this evidence are in particularly good form at the moment and the Exton engineering. This is a SACD set and even though I was able to listen ‘only’ in the standard format the Exton engineers have caught the Rudolfinum in Prague as well – rich and warm but with excellent detail and convincing stereo spread – as I have ever heard it.
Sadly there’s a caveat coming: conductor Kazuki Yamada, while neat and efficient and never less that tasteful not once reminds me why the two main works are amongst my very favourite. His is a middle path of no great emotional extreme and little insight. The Kalinnikov has to be one 19th century Russia’s most benevolently lyrical and memorably melodic works. For a composer who died young in penury this is a remarkably sunny symphony. The second subject of the first movement is one of the great Russian tunes. For sure the Czech cellos play it with great care and no little beauty but in other performances my stomach tightens and the throat catches. Yamada is just a fraction stodgy – yes this is only an Allegro moderato – yet the accompanying syncopating figures need to urge the melody forward. Svetlanov on an old Melodiya is a master here but so is Järvi with the Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos. This was when Järvi was at his considerable best – urgent but engaged and his Scottish players responded magnificently. Next to either of these fine conductors Yamada is routine – there are few of the little ebbs and flows, the moments of impetuosity that make this music live. Another major misjudgement by Yamada – a decision based on the hope of a single disc programme perhaps? – is the omission of the exposition repeat in the first movement. There will always be a debate about the necessity to repeat exactly the same music twice. I am nearly always on the side of ‘take the repeat’ – the composer put it there for a reason. Järvi and Svetlanov both include it.
There are passing beauties in Yamada’s performance – a meltingly beautiful clarinet solo – perfectly dolce as marked but with little regard for the specific dynamic markings. So it proves through the whole symphony – the second movement Andante commodo comes off best – helped by the playing and translucent engineering. The scherzo is simply not joyful enough and the finale seems longwinded in a way I had never considered before. Good though the engineering is the hall resonance conspires to make the timpani rather too prominent and ‘tubby’. At the end of the work it had never struck me before how much triangle there was in this piece. Kalinnikov was just in his mid-twenties when he wrote this work and Yamada makes you realise that he was still learning his craft. Compare Järvi, who storms the battlements of the finale – resplendent brass to the fore – and makes you believe it is a cast iron masterpiece.
So if the Kalinnikov does not smile enough the Glazunov is not epic enough. Here there are even more comparisons – this is probably Glazunov’s most recorded symphony. Again, I have a very soft spot for the old Soviet-sourced performances whether from Rozhdestvensky, Svetlanov or Fedoseyev. The relatively recent performance from Jose Serebrier again with the (now) Royal Scottish National Orchestra trumps them all. This is the perfect blend of good sound – although the Exton is better - and playing but bags of temperament to boot. Where Serebrier swaggers Yamada plods – at every turn the inherent drama of the work is underplayed. There is a perfectly legitimate case for a ‘straight’ near-classical approach to any work and if you find other approaches too bombastic this might well be the version to consider.
It is often said that the finest music in Glazunov’s symphonies is to be found in the scherzos. Certainly, as the movement here with least inherent drama it works best once again aided by the excellence of the playing and engineering. The glittering translucent skill of the orchestration comes through delightfully with harp, glockenspiel and triangle perfectly balanced but registering beautifully. In the slow movement there is a twice played passage by the trumpets and low brass where an imposing chordal motif interrupts the music’s flow. The Czech brass are quite gorgeous and Yamada is ‘right’ in that the passage is only marked f. None of the older Soviet performances have brass sections that ever worried about playing just f. The result in those Soviet versions might well be harsh and verging on the crude but for sure it implies a drama, a moment of crisis that to my ear serves the music to better effect than the passing beauties of Yamada. If the scherzo is one of Glazunov’s best than the last movement is one of his finest festive finales too. Glazunov marks this with one of those slightly contradictory markings Allegro Maestoso (minim/half note = 126). Yamada is a fraction under the metronome marking as is Serebrier with Svetlanov pushing on a good few points over. Interestingly Fedoseyev decides to make more of the Maestoso and is down around 112. Unfortunately for the latter conductor his 1970s recording now sounds crude to the point of discomfort but at a push I would take his interpretation over any of the others. There’s a grandly powerful momentum even at the steadier tempo that builds to a truly heroic conclusion. Again Yamada’s greatest failing is to generate any sense of cumulative anticipation or inevitable direction. The music hits an emotional plateau in the first thirty seconds and goes nowhere however delightful passing moments may be.
The programme is completed by the standard five movement suite from Khachaturian’s incidental music to Masquerade. Following the pattern of ‘not enough’ – this is just too too polite. If ever there was a gaudy and glorious piece this is it. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it so beautifully or neatly played as here – but this piece should not be simply beautiful and neat. This is music filmed in Glorious
Technicolor. Compare Loris Tjeknavorian’s Armenian Philharmonic on ASV – a rumbustious romp that just about stays on the musical rails. What Tjeknavorian may lack in finesse or execution is more than made up for in sheer joie de vivre. That is true of many other versions too; Stanley Black and the LSO on a Decca twofer, Veronica Dudarova and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra on Melodiya or Tjeknavorian on his earlier RCA disc also with the LSO. The Czech trombones do some comical glissandi in the closing Galop but they are in the score and register more or at least more effectively in other versions. There is simply not enough pep and fizz – rather like a vintage champagne left to stand for slightly too long; a tad too warm and the sparkle has gone. This is a disc where the phrase “carefully prepared” is not necessarily a compliment.
As mentioned repeatedly, this is a finely engineered disc – the Kalinnikov is the work where the timpani are most intrusive but that as much as anything is a function of the composer’s over-writing of the part. There must be a market where a skilled translator can provide the Japanese CD industry with idiomatic accurate translations. The brief liner here is in Japanese with a 4 page English-only insert added. As it currently stands this liner is as entertaining as it is uninformative; re the Romance from Masquerade; “the heroin Nina sings this song”, re the Galop, “The beat sometimes changes and sharp rhythms appear”. Of the Kalinnikov, “the scherzo movement sounds like dance. The main theme is defined by minute movements of the strings”. There are no artist biographies or photographs – let alone track timings. For a product offered at premium price this is simply not good enough especially when compared to the quality of product offered by other companies – a recent two disc set of violin concertos with Gil Shaham on Canary Classics is a shining example of just how good accompanying documentation can be.
So, a potentially excellent project rather let down by the too considered and cautious manner of its conductor and the over-pricing of the product. My guess is that this will appeal most to audiophiles looking to exploit the potential of their high end audio systems to hear one of the world’s great orchestras, in their famous home-hall. For the music alone, look elsewhere.
Nick Barnard