The Art of Svetlanov
USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. 1962-1985, Moscow, USSR, ADD SCRIBENDUM SC501 [20 CDs: c.24 hrs]
Scribendum is a label that does not shout its wares from the rooftops but they have much that is of interest … and more. Quite apart from this Svetlanov box they have issued sizeable wallet sets focusing on Scherchen (SC801 27 CDs), Leibowitz (SC510, 13 CDs), Horenstein (SC511) and Kempe (SC502). They're not inexpensive but there's little if any direct competition.
Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002) was born in Moscow. He studied with Alexander Gauk and Yuri Shaporin. Shaporin's three major cantatas really should be issued in a single edition by Melodiya; his never-recorded 1930s Symphony needs to be revived as well. After some years at the Bolshoi Svetlanov was appointed conductor of the USSRSO in 1965, a post he held until 2000 when he was dismissed because he spent too much time conducting outside Russia. From the 1960s until the mid-1980s Melodiya recorded Svetlanov and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra in a vast spread of orchestral music. This ranged from international display pieces to mainstream European concert classics to Russian/Soviet repertoire, both high profile and less so. He presided over the "Anthology of Russian Symphony Music" in which Russian orchestral music of the late 19th to mid 20th centuries was systematically recorded. He was both conductor and composer. He was breathtakingly industrious as internet searches will show. It's a pity that the Svetlanov family's website discography has gone the way of all flesh.
Over the years Scribendum issued individually a selection of Melodiya Svetlanov material on licence. Those twenty discs have now been reissued in this box. There's also a very good 10 CD Svetlanov set on Brilliant Classics and as far as I can see there are no clashes with the Scribendum. Svetlanov made recordings or enjoyed the issue attentions for and of an accommodating myriad of record companies including BMG, Hyperion, Warner and Alto. I would not like to pass over mention of his complete Miaskovsky, his Mahler and his Nystroem. However a search on this site under his name will reveal so much more, including a whole series of SVET boxes.
Let's start with an overview of this well-stocked set. From the Austro-German repertoire the purchaser will get the four Brahms symphonies (across three discs), Beethoven symphonies 3 and 5 (loosely packed across two CDs) and Bruckner 8. Concert or recording war-horses include the three Respighi poems and 'the' Saint-SaŽns symphony. Then there's the Franck and, quite surprisingly, two major works by Elgar. Apart from DvořŠk 9 the remainder is Russian, ranging from Krennikhov's three symphonies and six discs of the Tchaikovsky symphonies including Manfred and Francesca da Rimini (two versions: 1968 live, 1970 studio), Romeo, Tempest and the Serenade for Strings. Curiously there are two versions (1968 studio and 1978 live) of the Leningrad Symphony. Where we might have been expecting a Rachmaninov spree there is just the Second Symphony.
First the Brahms symphonies. This is heavy-duty tormented, romantic stuff, recorded in a nicely unruly acoustic. In its intensity it stands apart from the more expansive Giulini/Vienna PO. As for the First, although the tension relents in the two middle movements, the emotional pressure is piled high in the outer ones. The finale develops a positively Tchaikovskian throb which matches rather aptly the warble of the French horns. The Second is less impressive with a warbly echo and papery strings. Brahms' Third and Fourth are a different matter. For those reared on Bruno Walter's Columbia SO version of the Third this all feels very familiar. The third movement always felt Russian to me from the first moment I heard the work. The Poco Allegretto is affectionately pointed. The finale with its hallmark "lightning strike" at 00:40 is very effective but not quite as Zeus-like as Walter. The string tone is grittily exciting. Those who have it will be able to compare Svetlanov's 1975 LSO reading of the Third. The Fourth is gloriously full of life with hall-filling pizzicato and the intoxicating power of a great orchestral engine being driven at full passionate stretch. There's a nice steady fade and not a trembling hand to be heard. The downside? Svetlanov leaning on the orchestra hard. Some people will not take to it. That said, this CD of symphonies 3 and 4 is amongst the first I would reach for from this box.
The single disc Bruckner 8's second movement is very agreeable and beautifully pointed. Unnervingly the trumpets are redolent of Janacek's Sinfonietta; this after a slightly oppressive first movement. The Russian style asserts itself in III with a memorably warbly French horn (6.00). Overall this is a purposeful, eloquent and warm reading with very little in it to worry true Bruckner believers. Beethoven symphonies 3 and 5 are on separate discs. These tempestuous readings date from 1981 and are not at all eccentric.
Svetlanov's Tchaikovsky is well known. It was first issued in the West on LP by EMI-Melodiya (SLS881) in the late 1960s. Those recordings have reappeared on Melodiya CDs but also on a now hard to find Aulos box from Korea. BMG-Melodiya in the late 1990s gave us this 1960s Manfred which is among the best by a long chalk. These raw and vivid golden-age 1960s recordings are what we have here complete with still distinctive Soviet wind playing and instruments. The first three symphonies are presented without apologies with intensity poured into them as if they were the last three. This First feels brisk, emotionally spot-on and flighty-light in a manner imbibed by Glazunov in his The Seasons. Perhaps Svetlanov is not quite as successful as the under-rated Bernstein/CBS in these three symphonies but there is plenty here to enjoy. Symphony No 2 with its pre-echoes of Manfred is nicely rounded and very well judged. Svetlanov evidently takes pains over this score and relishes each detail. The sound is very gutsy yet the wispy supernatural mood of the third movement is nicely caught. The finale has a heavily-shod imperial feeling like Glazunov's Eighth. The Third Symphony is the most nationalistic of the six: resonant, balletic, wintry and with an Imperial strut. A goodish Fourth Symphony - strong on exhilaration - is in company with a brutal assault on the Capriccio Italien. The Capriccio is hardly the world's greatest music but here is it pummelled not only into submission but into dust under the pile-driver power of a world class orchestra and conductor. The playing is remarkable, indeed awesome (in the proper sense of that word), but where is the heart. No. 5 is good with its typically warbly French horn solo in the second movement. It is exciting but not as much as Monteux, Stokowski, Temirkanov, Mravinsky or Sawallisch. The Svetlanov Sixth is also a strong contender; the music hums and broods. The Svetlanov Manfred is one of the gramophone greats but brace yourself; it's exhausting, even shattering. Each trudging massed string attack is given a different yet consistently commanding sonority. This is devastatingly electric playing comparable with other yet undersung hot-headed Russian Greats: Konstantin Symneonov and two who, to the best of my knowledge, were never permitted to set down Manfred: Vyacheslav Ovchinninkov (Olympia) and Nikolai Golovanov (Boheme). Svetlanov's Serenade for Strings has a delightful but very large-scale ebb and surge. There's no Voyevode here nor a Hamlet; I should just mention in passing that I recently belatedly discovered a superb Hamlet from Constant Lambert on Dutton CDLX7006 vintage 1942.
Moving on. We are treated to two Shostakovich Sevenths. The 1968 studio version is recorded in beefy sound. It really fills the audio picture. The music-making is attentive, rising to breaking-strain taut. Ten years later came a live Seventh complete with audience coughing. This is more tender and runs to 76:01 against 1968's 75:02. It's impressive music-making either way. DvořŠk's Ninth from 1981 is also a live artefact complete with coughs. It is unsentimental, dry-eyed and rhythmically sharply etched. In the finale there is a rushed excitement about the playing, gauntly brassy and with phrases tumbling over one another. The StravinskyRite dates from 1966. It's laid out ideally in 14 tracks. As I said when I reviewed this same recording on a Klassic Haus disc, this is a sturdy item with deeply impressive and heavy-booted thudding impact. There is no applause. The MosolovSteel Foundry has had some attention over the years from de Sabata, Argeo Quadri (Westminster), Ehrlich and Fiedler. Svetlanov gave the first performance since the 1930s in Moscow in 1975 and this is presumably a recording taken down at that concert. The relentless steely impact of Mosolov's most famous piece is Łber-Pacific 231. This shares something with the demonstrative but emotionally cool music of Igor Markevitch.
Khrennikov's three symphonies were recorded between 1973 and 1978 and in common with all these discs were issued separately by Scribendum. The First Symphony combines engaging and cheery playfulness with the sort of arching heroic writing to be heard from Miaskovsky. It's just a shame that at the close the composer returns to the knockabout wheeziness with which the last movement began. The wartime Second has the heroically whooping energy of a work of those times. The brass make a gloriously ripe sound - tragic and heroic at the same time. The finale has rasping and rolling brass but lacks any sense of homecoming. The Third is the most Shostakovich-like of the three. Circus japes are contrasted with a sleek and quiet romantic theme for stratospheric violins. The finale is effective, but only after some vapid gestures. The USSR State Symphony Orchestra displays the unique sound, character and tonal colours that Svetlanov developed during his many years as its chief conductor.
It's rather a pity that Svetlanov was never drawn to the symphonies of Bax, Benjamin or Moeran. Another Russian, Vassili Sinaiski made something of a conflagration of the Moeran at the Proms on 23 July 2009. Recently I heard and was very impressed by Igor Oistrakh's Elgar Violin Concerto. As it is, Svetlanov did record Gerontius. On 11 April 1977 he also tackled, at a live Moscow concert, Elgar's Second Symphony. He also added Sea Pictures with his wife Larissa Avdeyeva (1925-2013) singing in Russian. As someone wrote elsewhere on this site, hearing Sea Pictures in Russian is "odd and eerie" but is something "that definitely grows on a Western listener". Where corals lie with its fragile and finely honed orchestral part is encored. It's irresistible and all the better for the freshness of treatment here. The Second Symphony is memorable for its sheer drive with ripe whooping and earthy brass. Svetlanov rips into the music; parallels here with Solti. As for the second movement, allowing for some raw raspberry trumpets (6:48) this music has, in its fatalistic and craggily epic essence, something universal - even Russian (12:35; 13:05). In the third movement there's a flyaway and galloping quality that hits the target. Only in the lingering smooch of the finale did I have doubts.
This live 1985 Rachmaninov Second runs to 51 minutes. It's cut - an old-fashioned choice, even in the 1980s - and harks back to Svetlanov's first recording of the work in 1964 (Bolshoi). Its signature traits are all present and correct: rushing excitement and speed-merchant phrases microscopically trip over each other. It's worth hearing but there are quite a few Svetlanov Seconds out there: 1995 and a cut 1964 (reviewreviewreview). It’s suitably matched with Tchaikovsky'sFrancesca da Rimini. The much older (1968) Francesca has more unruly life and dangerous corners. The slightly later version is almost casual as if saving up for the wild breathless tramp at the close. If you want no-holds-barred-frenzy in Francesca then try to find Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov’s Melodiya recording on deleted Olympia OCD139. Thanks once again to Nick Barnard for guiding me to Ovchinnikov.
Live recordings from 1982-83 of the Franck Symphony and the Saint-SaŽns Third share a disc. The Franck is beautifully paced (II) and Svetlanov allows time for the finale to sing. The downside is that the orchestra sounds raucous once or twice. The Saint-SaŽns is in two tracks. It is not rushed but favours fruitily brooding and just-contained excitement. The playing throughout is neatly pointed. The performance succumbs to over-statement in the last few pages and finally it's all just too much. Applause is included with both symphonies.
The Respighi disc offers the usual trio of symphonic poems. It's a shame Svetlanov didn't get to the more spectacular and more substantial works such as Vetrate di Chiesa or Belkis. The recordings were made live at a concert in 1980 and there's applause at the end of each piece. Fountains of Rome is certainly a show-piece and here it is treated to a close-up film-stage recording with warbling woodwind supplying evidence-in-chief. The Pines are highly dramatic with an almost voluptuous woodwind focus but the French horns are insufficiently prominent or rounded. Roman Festivals is a vivid performance, brilliantly lit. This is as much natural hunting territory for Svetlanov as The Planets but another Iron Curtain regular (Antonio Pedrotti in his Supraphon retrospect) in the then Czechoslovakia shows how much more can be made of the poetry inherent in these Respighi pieces.
All these Scribendum recordings have been re-mastered by Ian Jones at the Abbey Road Studios and each sleeve bears the Abbey Road logo. The set comes in the form of a basic card wallet box which is slightly over-sized for the twenty discs. Each disc is in a card sleeve bearing the cover of the original individual Scribendum issue which appeared over the last fifteen years or so. The sleeves and for that matter the wallet are nicely designed and the reverse of each sleeve carried a detailed track-list and discographical information including date, venue and recording team details. There is no booklet; no profile of Svetlanov, nothing about the music - it's just the wallet, the sleeves and the discs.
Svetlanov-philes and Tchaikovskians will find this collection irresistible. It shows the conductor active in both accustomed and unaccustomed repertoire.
Founding Editor Rob Barnett Senior Editor
John Quinn Seen & Heard Editor Emeritus Bill Kenny Editor in Chief
Vacant MusicWeb Webmaster
David Barker MusicWeb Founder Len Mullenger