Magazine article Gramophone

Russian Perspectives: Four Box-Sets That Have an Element of 'Completeness'-All from Russian Composers, Conductors and Performers

Magazine article Gramophone

Russian Perspectives: Four Box-Sets That Have an Element of 'Completeness'-All from Russian Composers, Conductors and Performers

Article excerpt

Familiarity breeds contempt --a simple enough cliche, occasionally justified, but when it comes to recordings, the greater the performance, the more we respond to repeated hearings. One such case is Sergey Rachmaninov's legacy (as pianist) for RCA, now enjoying its third CD outing from RCA itself, a slimline box and nearly 11 hours' worth of listening. Yes, the sound is variable (especially those recordings captured on a horn gramophone) and the repertoire isn't all 'top-notch', but 70-plus years on there's still no recording of the piano concertos and Paganini Rhapsody that can seriously rival the composer's own. Ditto his various preludes and other shorter pieces, as well as Schumann's Carnaval (with its death-haunted 'Sphinxes'), Chopin's Funeral March Sonata, the master's way with numerous morceaux and the wonderful sonata recordings with Fritz Kreisler. Everywhere you sense the presence of a keyboard giant: the thunderous attack, the wonderful delicacy, rhapsodic phrasing that never edges into corny excess, and that extraordinary feeling that the pianist and his instrument are as one. If 'Vladimir Horowitz Live at Carnegie Hall' is the most remarkable set of live piano recordings available, this has to be the greatest single box of piano studio sessions--no contest. And I can't think that any pianist worthy of the name would seriously disagree.

Tatiana Nikolayeva might not have authored the 24 magnificent Preludes and Fugues that she plays on a three-CD Melodiya release, but she was chosen by composer Shostakovich to premiere them; and even in the light of selections as recorded by Richter and Shostakovich himself, Nikolayeva's three complete cycles are as yet unrivalled. The first (1962) is out on Doremi, the last (1990) was recorded by Hyperion, and the middle set here (also reissued by Regis), from 1987, and possibly the best of the three, enjoys relatively dry sound that suits the starkly immediate nature of much of the music. By turns playful and profound, contemplative and dramatic, it's a journey very much worth making, and Nikolayeva is your ideal guide. This Melodiya transfer is the one to go for.

Two Melodiya orchestral sets hail from a somewhat earlier vintage. Yevgeny Svetlanov's cycle of Tchaikovsky symphonies with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra was recorded in 1967. Speaking in general terms it stands up fairly well even in the light of its best successors (Pletnev on DG and Pentatone, Rozhdestvensky on Melodiya). Highlights include a rustic Second (bracing Scherzo, thrilling finale), a Third that features an especially emotive Andante elegiaco, an extremely heated Fourth (the finale fast-paced like Mravinsky's, if less sleek) and a Manfred Symphony that for depth of understanding and fine execution still compares with the very best. Good as they are, the less distinguished recordings in the cycle (Nos 1, 5 and 6) aren't exactly CD classics. But in spite of occasionally raucous sound, I'd say that Gennadi Rozhdestvensky's Prokofiev symphony series (recorded 1965-67) probably is. OK, the Fifth has its noteworthy rivals (Karajan, Paavo Jarvi, even Kletzki and Ansermet), and with No 6 there's the incomparable Mravinsky, but in the 'wild card' Symphonies Nos 2 and 3, no one quite matches Rozhdestvensky for animal magnetism, the brass at the close of the Second's first movement like a bunch of braying banshees, the marching climax of the theme and variations second movement shockingly invasive. And there's the pitch-black processional that closes the Third, like a menacing death march. By contrast, the Fourth's first movement is energetic and big-hearted, while the Seventh epitomises the tender and human aspects of Prokofiev's later phase, music charged with a peculiarly bittersweet brand of exuberance. All four of these works are conducted by Rozhdestvensky with a comprehensive understanding of their very different personalities, and with a chipper, well-played Classical Symphony to open the cycle, I wouldn't miss this set for the world. …

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