Svetlanov Conducts = RACHMANINOV: The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29; Two Etudes-Tableaux (orch. RESPIGHI); MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. RAVEL) – BBC Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
BBC Legends BBCL 4259-2, 70:56 [Distr. by E1] ****:
The concert from Royal Festival Hall, London 28 October 1999 features the indefatigable Russian maestro Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002), and this disc contains the lion’s share of that program, omitting the Prokofiev G Minor Concerto with Mikhail Rudy. Svetlanov opens with one of the more monumental realizations of Rachmaninov’s homage (1909) to Arnold Boecklin, a performance that certainly urges the more Gothic elements of the score, its macabre excitement. The inexorable 5/8 rhythm captures both the oars of Charon upon the Styx and the passionate lament that embraces Death in an erotic crescendo-laden courtship. That Svetlanov can mold his BBC strings, winds, and brass into a supple “Russian” sound passes off as a minor miracle of superior musicianship. Broadly conceived a la Celibidache, the score expands before our ears, in the manner of a DeMille epic, some four minutes longer than any inscription I know. The effect proves never less than dazzling, a resplendent reading whose implacable power mesmerizes from first to last, the Dies Irae shimmering, tremolando, with an angst worthy of Edvard Munch or Egon Schiele.
The two Etudes-Tableaux open with virtually the same, undulating sea-figures as the tone-poem, the first named, appropriately, La Mer et les mouettes, Op. 39, No. 2. Given Respighi’s internship with Rimsky-Korsakov, his effective mimicking of Rachmaninov’s orchestral diction for this dark nine-minute fantasia hardly surprises, but it does delight. La Foire, Op. 33, No. 4 projects a festive atmosphere, perhaps a spirited ride via troika through glistening and cascading snow drifts. Rachmaninov imitates Schumann, having crafted an energetic maerchen or skazka of his own idiosyncratic device.
The Svetlanov intensity bears down on Mussorgsky’s long-familiar Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), here played in a most virtuoso style, the showpiece Koussevitzky wanted Ravel to fashion in 1922. The series of fairy-tales and grotesques passes by in splendid relief, vacillating between the garish (Gnomus and Catacombae) and the sublimely lithe (Tuileries and The Limoges Market) to the musically deft (Ballet of Unhatched Chicks). Nor should we fail to acknowledge the warmth of the string tone, as in The Old Castle or in the more expansive statements of the Promenade theme itself. The Polish ox-cart Bydlo assumes a granite incarnation, lumbering, ineluctable as Fate. If Samuel Goldenberg–or more precisely, Schmuyle–sounds a bit stodgy, the supple strings and woodwinds caress our morbid sensibilities as we speak to the dead in a dead language. Fury and menace drip from the brass, harps and cymbals of Baba Yaga, a hectic ride that culminates at The Great Gate of Kiev, an evocation of Heaven-on-Earth that ends with a long-held chord and a real church bell to add to the magisterial splendor of the occasion and the delirium of an enchanted audience.