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Stephen Francis Vasta
MusicWeb International, July 2012

Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony is a charming if spotty score. There’s more than a whiff of the ballet to its themes and colours. Yevgeny Svetlanov’s vivid late-Sixties Melodiya recording has held up well for some forty years. The ICA Classics account, recorded in concert just two weeks before the conductor’s death, would be hard pressed to match it.

As with the conductor’s other British remakes of his Soviet repertoire, the performance gains from more refined execution. Principal woodwinds are polished. The first movement’s clarinet theme gains in wistful sweetness. The oboe in the slow movement, as expressive as before, is incomparably smoother. The BBC strings are warm and better blended than those of the USSR Symphony. The brass are far better controlled. In the finale, the fugue in the development is clean and energetic, while the coda’s tutti chords are compact and brilliant.

Svetlanov’s interpretation remains much the same as before. It’s spacious and atmospheric, and is realized with crisp accents and pointed articulation. If the climax of the first-movement exposition misses the headlong impulse of the earlier account, it’s still full-throated and exuberant. The basses anticipate the pizzicato landing at 4:39 of the Adagio cantabile but the ensuing passage conveys a chilly expansiveness. In the Scherzo, some may prefer Markevitch’s darting, mercurial approach (Philips/Universal). Svetlanov’s hint of breadth allows for clear give and take among all the little melodic fragments. The Trio’s waltz theme is graciously shaped. The finale is tricky, a thing of shreds, patches, and fugues. Svetlanov builds it in a convincing arc. The textures open out thrillingly as the Andante lugubre introduction moves into the Allegro moderato. The gradual acceleration through the rather bare transitional passage at 8:35 is expertly gauged. The climactic reprise, where the conductor once again uses a tricked-out bass drum part, is a bit stolid. That said, the conductor drives the one-in-a-bar coda effectively.

Unlike the Tchaikovsky, the Firebird Suite isn’t actually a remake. Svetlanov used the standard 1919 arrangement in his Soviet recording. Here he plays the version that the composer stitched together in 1945—perhaps to garner royalty payments—which interpolates several scenes between the Introduction and the Princesses’ Round Dance. The extra music could have sounded like so much padding, but here it goes well. The second Pantomime is keenly articulated, with bracing rhythmic address. In the other movements, the spacious tempi bring expansive warmth to the low string-and-wind textures in the Pas de deux, and highlight Stravinsky’s pointillistic flashes of color elsewhere.

I was impressed by the depth of the reproduction, which isn’t just evident in big brass chords and drum-strokes. The two unison horns in Tchaikovsky’s slow movement, for example, sound distinct from the horn solos. © 2012 MusicWeb International Read complete review

Lawrence Hansen
American Record Guide, July 2011

This account retains plenty of the vigor and vitality of Svetlanov’s earlier recording with the USSR Symphony (Nov/Dec 2008) and combines it with the much greater polish of the British orchestra. Brit ensembles can be a bit bland sometimes, but not this evening. They respond to the shaky maestro’s direction with fervor, power, and commitment. You don’t get the excitement of a performance threatening to fly apart at any moment…but overall this performance is a much better testament for posterity of the conductor’s talent.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta, April 2011

These outstanding performances under the baton of the late Evgeny Svetlanov were recorded live by the BBC on 5 June 1996 and 19 April 2002. Issued in the first batch of releases on the new ICA Classics label, they reveal a master conductor of the Russian romantic favorites at or near the top of his form. That the latter recording, that of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, was made only a fortnight before Svetlanov’s death (Moscow, May 3, 2002) seems incredible when we witness his dynamic leadership from the podium in a performance marked by a sensational freshness and vitality.

Svetlanov’s invigorating account of Tchaikovsky’s “Winter Dreams” Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra captures all of the youthful élan the composer invested in it. That freshness, revealed in the natural way the melodies seem to dance forth, was evidently hard-won since, as his brother Modest later attested, it cost the composer more labor and suffering than any of his other works. Perhaps he also felt the weight of history on his shoulders, since it was to be the first symphony ever by a Russian composer, a reflection of how backward Russia was musically at the time of its premiere in 1866. In later years, as he confessed to his patroness Madame Von Meck in 1883, Tchaikovsky felt a great fondness for it: “Although it is in many ways very immature, yet fundamentally it has more substance and is better than many of my other, more mature works.”

Under Svetlanov’s direction, Tchaikovsky’s themes seem to emerge like blossoming flowers. The opening movement, subtitled “Dreams of a Winter Journey” shows the composer handling sonata form very freely, in keeping with the needs of his materialÍž first, a long drawn-out melody with a distinctly Russian character, and then a secondary theme based on an actual folksong, all of this underscored by a smart rhythmical accompaniment like the prancing of a horse-drawn sleigh on a winter’s day. The songlike slow movement, “Land of Desolation, Land of Mists,” is essentially monothematic, a drawback that a maestro like Svetlanov can turn into a virtue, as he does by his skillful handling of the variations and gradations of its single, melancholy melody. The “immaturity” Tchaikovsky hinted at may reflected in the repetitive figures in the opening section of the Scherzo. They almost reach a point of undesired monotony until we realize what Tchaikovsky has been setting us up for: a glorious waltz that sails forth with breathtaking ease and irresistible charm. The finale, which incorporates an actual Russian folksong, “The flowers were blooming,” shows Svetlanov at his best as a maestro who never hesitated To “take it big” (as they used to say in the movies), building a stunning climax that seems to compel our applause.

For Stravinsky’s Firebird, Svetlanov opts for the 1945 suite, a wise choice since it reveals more of the essential nature of the ballet than the composer’s earlier suites. (At just under 34 minutes, it appears to substantiate Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of art as “real life, with all the dull parts cut out.”) Svetlanov’s account of the enchanted garden in which Prince Ivan first encounters the Firebird is steeped in mystery and nocturnal atmosphere. In the various pantomimes and dances, we are able to follow the plot line as the Firebird reveals to Ivan that the captive princesses he discovers in the garden have been enslaved by the evil sorcerer Kastchei. When we arrive at the Infernal Dance of Kastchei and his Followers, announced by a terrific downbeat, we have the sort of controlled musical pandemonium in which a great conductor can demonstrate his prowess. In the following Berceuse (Lullaby) the atmosphere of dreamlike beauty and calm are restored. In the exultant Finale we catch a final fleeting glimpse of the Firebird, and then the music gives way to boundless joy as the captives have been liberated, building to an absolute knockout of a conclusion. That is just the sort of excitement and dazzling color in which Svetlanov excelled!

Graham Rickson
The Arts Desk, March 2011

Overshadowed by the later works, Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony isn’t played as often as it should be. It’s refreshingly free of the doom-laden atmosphere which can make the mature symphonies uneasy listening. It still sounds unmistakeably Russian, despite the composer’s desire to write a symphony more obviously Western-influenced than those by his predecessors. It’s heard here in a charismatic, nicely recorded performance from the Barbican in 2002, in what turned out to be Evgeny Svetlanov’s final concert—he died just a few weeks later. Fascinating to hear how the BBC players sound so idiomatically Slavic, with bold wind and brass playing supported by dark, rich string tone. The concert closed with an incandescent performance of Rachmaninov’s The Bells—surely ICA Classisc have missed a trick by not releasing this as well.

The coupling is a 1995 Philharmonia account of Stravinsky’s final thought on The Firebird. The 1945 suite is more transparently orchestrated than the 19191 version and includes more of Stravinsky’s magical linking passages. Under some conductor it can sound brittle, but Svetlanov’s penchant for rich textures and balletic sense of rubato mean that we’re still very much looking back to the 19th century. As with the Tchaikovsky, the solo winds excel. The Danse Infernale struts with barbaric swagger, with excellent trombone smears and whooping horns. And listen to Stravinsky’s subtle 1945 chance to the final 7/4 apotheosis, with the brass chord more clipped and detached.

Andrew Achenbach, February 2011

The account of the Tchaikovsky symphony emanates from what proved to be Evgeny Svetlanov’s very last concert (the other major work on the bill was Rachmaninov’s “The Bells”). It’s a majestically paced interpretation, evincing an unforced wisdom, firm grip and disarming emotional candour. The first movement unfolds with effortless naturalness, the string basses providing a reassuringly solid bedrock, the woodwinds always keenly articulate and trumpets lending a satisfying bite to tuttis. At the same time, Svetlanov extracts every drop of songful warmth same time, Svetlanov extracts every drop of songful warmth from the second subject, its brief but telling modulation into a remote F sharp major (at fig E or 2’53”) quickening the senses like the appearance of a rainbow. In the ensuing Adagio cantabile ma non tanto Svetlanov coaxes playing of memorable expressive warmth from the BBC Symphony Orchestra (its cellos in particular cover themselves in glory from the Tempo primo marking at figure C 4’39”). What’s more, the horn-led climatic paragraph opens out marvelously, the orchestral timbre both noble and strong, while the reprise of the opening paragraph at the very end distils a particularly potent sense of heartache that put me in mind of the slow movement of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony ( another work Svetlanov always conducted with abundant perception). If the scherzo takes just a little time to settle, the trio is to be cherished in its freshness of new discovery, Tchaikovsky’s waltz caressed with enormous affection by conductor and performers like (the way the first violins and cellos gently lean on their accent in the fourth bar is judged to perfection). The finale is superb, too, the second subject the high-kicking Cossack dance it should be—and how shrewd of Svetlanov to keep in reserve such a terrific burst of energy for the adrenalin-fuelled coda.

The coupling—a patient and observant reading of Stravinsky’s 1945 Firebird Suite with the Philharmonia Orchestra from six years earlier—likewise brings much to relish. Svetlanov’s formidable theatrical instincts do not desert him, and once we reach the ‘The Princesses’ round-dance’, there’s no doubting a master is on the podium, such is the bewitching beauty and fragrant poetry that Svetlanov conjures (meltingly expressive winds and string both here and in the ‘Berceuse’). Elsewhere, ‘Kashchei’s Infernal Dance’ manages to combine gut-wrenching excitement and agreeable transparency, while the transition into ‘Finale’ is truly spine-tingling in its awesome hush and control. Needless to say, the closing bars are thrilling in their cumulative splendor.

In both works, the BBC engineers strike an eminently truthful balance, the vividness of the sound enhanced by Paul Baily’s remastering; indeed , the overall effect strikes me as rather more palatable than many an LSO Live offering captured in this same venue. Urgently recommend.

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