LABELS: Russian Disc
WORKS: Symphony No. 6
PERFORMER: Leningrad PO/Evgeni Mravinsky
CATALOGUE NO: RD CD 10 900 AAD
Listening to these latest prize specimens in Russian Disc’s Mravinsky treasury has always been a joy, sometimes a revelation. The conventional gateway to our appreciation of Russia’s most phenomenally hard-working conductor remains DG’s 1960 studio recording of the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies. But if you are prepared for much less reliable sound quality and the hazards of a Russian audience in winter, then these live performances ranging from 1955 to 1983 – five years before Mravinsky’s death at the age of 84, give a broader, fascinatingly inconsistent picture of his art.
The finale of DG’s studio recording of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony always struck me as over-drilled, machine-like; here, presto articulation is hair-raisingly exciting. The 1959 Fourth, with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra (the front of the disc says ‘Leningrad Philharmonic’), hazards a bizarre oboe solo in the Andantino but also breathtaking pizzicato strings in the Scherzo — surprising menace between the lines.
Mravinsky’s Classical objectivity in the slow movements sometimes cramps the atmosphere – that goes for the great central Largo of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony too — but turning to Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, he seems expansively willing to meet late-Romantic hedonism on its own terms; the sandblasting Leningrad trumpeter, incidentally, is unforgettable.
The meticulously detailed Brahms and Schubert symphonies sometimes seem in need of the love and affection Mravinsky urges in the fascinating Brahms rehearsal sequences (the paraphrased notes are inadequate for non-Russian speakers); but Weber’s Euryanthe Overture leaps off the printed page. The live performance of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony is both more wayward and more vicious brass-wise than Mravinsky’s studio recording — no careful muting here for Prokofiev’s unorthodox enemies of promise.
For epitomes of Mravinsky’s musicianly taste, try the perfectly tempered cello theme at the start of the Nutcracker ‘Pas de deux’ — one of the six symphonic numbers in Mravinsky’s splendid selection (not the conventional Suite that Russian Disc’s unfortunate annotator was presumably told to write about) — or the Lyatoshinsky Third Symphony, an armour-plated conflict-to-triumph thrash in other hands, but respectfully balanced and urgently propelled here.
We need to know more about Mravinsky’s involvement with this and other repertoire – the presentation is not worthy of an ‘edition’ — but at least Russian Disc’s curious acquisitions help to enrich our understanding of a figure who stands alongside Toscanini and Furtwangler as one of the century’s most awe-inspiring conductors. David Nice