Yevgeny Svetlanov

Written by: Colin Anderson

A concert conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov was always keenly anticipated. Sometimes expectations were dashed, but more usually one came away enlightened and exhilarated.

His death last Friday, 3 May 2002, aged 74 came as a shock. In the afternoon I had been advised that he had withdrawn from his Philharmonia Orchestra concert on the 5th. A few hours later, just back from a concert, I found another e-mail advising his death. Difficult to think that he had been in London just a fortnight earlier for a BBCSO concert at the Barbican, possibly his last concert. If so his final music was Rachmaninov’s The Bells, its ultimate movement concerned with death.

My first encounter with this giant among Russian conductors was at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon sometime in the late ’seventies. He conducted the LSO in Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite (a last-minute replacement for the Mastersinger’s Prelude) and a scintillating account of Prokofiev 7. In between he afforded Janet Baker a vibrant accompaniment in Richard Strauss songs.

I missed several Svetlanov/LSO concerts – including a Wagner evening and a Bruckner 8 – but remember an extravagant exposition of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances (paired to a rather understated Carmina Burana), a mellifluous Brahms 3, dramatic Don Juan and a colourful piece of his own, a folk-tune Rhapsody I think. There was also a Dream of Gerontius, its full force only hitting me two days later! He also conducted that same Elgar with the Philharmonia, the Orchestra he came to more and more in his latter years. A stunning Tchaikovsky Romeo & Juliet opened one RFH Philharmonia concert – memorable indeed, not least for the players applauding him afterwards as if the concert had finished. He went on to give a Rachmaninov 2 that has passed into folklore, and an invitation to play it twice more. The last one, just this year, I missed – all 70 minutes of it (no repeat); I take comfort in a NHK CD of Svetlanov conducting this work in Tokyo in 1999, as broad and dramatic a version as can be imagined.

Earlier Philharmonia successes included Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique (the first of three) that was not only a remarkable performance but played to a ridiculously small RFH audience (especially as Glazunov and Prokofiev shared the programme); the audience though was a ’good’ one – not a sound inveigled the closing bars, and the long silence afterwards spoke volumes.

Although recently one noted that the years had begun to take their toll of Svetlanov, his last performances still had the stamp of authority on them. There was no lack of control when Svetlanov took over 13 minutes for the ’Adagietto’ of Mahler 5 a couple of years ago (several minutes slower than his recording), nor a 13-minute Debussy Faune last year, one that was compelling not so much for the breadth but the way Svetlanov sustained the atmosphere and the whole.

That afore-mentioned BBCSO concert, whether Svetlanov’s last or not, was certainly his farewell to London. Something to cherish now, and while we will all have memories of particular concerts or incidents at rehearsals, it’s the vast legacy of recordings that Svetlanov made that will enshrine his name. His traversal of the Russian symphonic repertoire is immense. At the moment, it’s his recordings of Myaskovsky’s 27 symphonies that are particularly engrossing … volumes are appearing regularly on Olympia, the project safely completed a few years ago. Svetlanov’s Mahler cycle is never less than interesting, and at its best – numbers 3, 5, 6 and 9 – well worth acquiring. That’s on Le Chant du Monde, and I think currently available. His vast Melodiya catalogue is not so easy to locate given BMG is no longer marketing this material.

Hopefully, these recordings will be returned. In the meantime, and with more memories and aspects of his art to come no doubt – he could be “good value” backstage I’m told – there is the initial blow of Svetlanov’s sudden loss but the realisation that he will continue to be a significant presence through his recordings and the musical riches contained therein.

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