Overtures by Russian Composers (CD review)

Music of Glinka, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Dargomyzhsky, and Mussorgsky. Evgeny Svetlanov, Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre of the USSR; USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra. Melodiya MED CD 10 01824.

Composers intend for overtures to be curtain raisers, and who better to perform a collection of Russian overtures than a Russian conductor, Evgeny Svetlanov, and a pair of Russian ensembles, the Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre of the USSR and the USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra. Drawn from Russian Melodiya's back catalogue of recordings, the nine overtures on the disc make for a stirring, if somewhat brief (a little under sixty minutes), album of entertainment.

Things begin with the Ruslan and Ludmila overture by Mikhail Glinka (1803-1857). This is a traditional opener for albums of Russian music, and I must say it never fails to get things off to a rousing start. Under Maestro Svetlanov it exhibits plenty of energy and verve, with the Bolshoi Orchestra in top form. Following that, we get Glinka's overture to Ivan Susanin, a longer, more somber, more melodramatic piece and, for most listeners, I'd guess, a less-familiar one. Done with the USSR State Academic Symphony, it shows a good deal of spirit and red-blooded Russian flair.

Next up is the overture to Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin (183301887). After a slow, relatively soft introduction, the music breaks out into a grand, heroic theme, followed by echoes of the "Polovtsian Dances." Svetlanov takes the middle section at a lilting, dance-like pace that is quite fetching.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) wrote "Dawn on the Moscow River" to introduce his opera Khovanshchina. It's lovely, and Svetlanov ensures that we hear all the picturesque sounds of daybreak in the city, complete with church bells.

After that, we get four overtures by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908): the little introduction to Sadko, then May Night, The Tsar's Bride, and The Maid of Pskov. Of the four, probably the most evocative is May Night, delicately handled by Svetlanov, and the most "Russian" sounding The Tsar's Bride, filled with contrasting light and dark passages that Svetlanov highlights brilliantly.

The program ends with the overture to Russalka by Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1813-1869). It contains a little of everything, from a fairly theatrical opening to a busy central section to a slight, breezy melody to a most-passionate ending. The music brings the album to an appropriately grandiose conclusion.

As I say, the disc provides an entertaining hour of music, although I wouldn't say it displaces my favorite album of Russian music by Georg Solti and the London Symphony (Decca or LIM). Solti is not only more exciting than Svetlanov in a similarly themed album, the Decca engineers recorded him and the LSO magnificently. With classical music recordings, there are always choices, a blessing and a curse, especially for those folks who hate making decisions.

Back in the Sixties and Seventies I admit I never cared much for the sound of Russian Melodiya LP's. They often seemed too thin, harsh, and bright for my ears. Not so with the remastered recordings on this 2011 CD release. They derive from 1963-1977 sessions, and while they are not state-of-the-art, they do sound more than acceptable, if still a tad thin. There is a particularly fine sense of hall ambience about all of the music, the older recordings actually displaying a greater depth of image, the newer ones a trifle smoother and wider spread out. My only minor qualm would be that we might have gotten some better-extended frequency extremes, which would have given the sonics a little more low-end punch and high-end sparkle.


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