The Isle of the Dead, Op.29
Rachmaninov, orch. Respighi
Etude-tableaux – La Mer et les mouettes, Op.39/2; La Foire, Op.33/4
Mussorgsky, orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded on 28 October 1999 in Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by: Andrew Achenbach
Reviewed: September 2009
CD No: BBC LEGENDS
Duration: 71 minutes
Those canny folk at Medici Arts know a good thing when they hear it, and profound thanks are due for this hugely enjoyable (and cleanly re-mastered) resuscitation of a memorable evening in the Royal Festival Hall conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002). Indeed, such is the outsize interpretative charisma and wholly infectious commitment on show – the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing out of its collective skin – that I’m not at all surprised to read in the booklet note that the famous Russian maestro was immediately invited back (how sad, though, that his delayed return visit three years later in the Barbican Hall proved to be his very last public appearance).
The performance of The Isle of the Dead clocks in at an intrepidly spacious, eyebrow-raising 24-and-a-half minutes, but the underlying pulse is inexorable, the tension superbly sustained. Climaxes are built with a giant authority and ear-tickling detail is legion. Better still, Svetlanov brings both a wondrous flexibility and devastating candour to the imploring central section (where refulgent strings really do cover themselves in glory). No one should miss experiencing this frequently hair-raising, emotionally draining account. (Incidentally, I would not have been responsible for my actions had I been sitting next to the idiot with the digital watch which goes off at 23’58”!)
The glowering mood then extends to the gently rocking seascape of the first of the two Etudes-tableaux (‘La Mer et les mouettes’), heard in Respighi’s sympathetic scoring. Serge Koussevitzky presided over the premiere – as he did Ravel’s 1922 orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, of which Svetlanov masterminds another riveting display. If there’s the occasional slip along the journey, it matters not a jot when the music-making is so alive and brimful of narrative flair. Enormously involving from first measure to last, Svetlanov’s pungently characterised conception combines an authentically Slavic tang and blistering temperament.
The vigorous stride of the opening ‘Promenade’ leads to a spitefully grinning ‘Gnomus’ and moody, exquisitely nuanced ‘The Old Castle’, while other high-spots include a baleful ‘Bydlo’, wickedly mischievous ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’ and a marvellously transparent ‘Market at Limoges’. ‘Catacombae’ and ‘Cum mortuis in lingua mortua’ form a powerfully contrasting diptych, the latter’s resolution genuinely affecting. After that, ‘The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba-Yaga)’ is thrilling in its physicality and unbridled (but never flashy) virtuosity, and you have to admire the awesome majesty and sheer chutzpah of Svetlanov’s way with ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’, with its fearsomely tolling large church bell and audaciously protracted final chord. The audience rightly roars its approval.
Great conducting, no question about it.