April 24, 2014
(++++) THE REISSUE ISSUE
Dvořák: Symphonies Nos. 1-9; Slavonic Dances, op. 46; Scherzo capriccioso; Carnival Overture; In Nature’s Realm; Serenade for Wind Instruments; Serenade for Strings. Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis (Symphonies, Dances, Scherzo, Carnival); Sinfonieorchester des Südwestfunks Baden-Baden conducted by David Zinman (In Nature’s Realm); Marlboro Festival Wind Ensemble conducted by Marcel Moyse (Wind); Münchner Philharmoniker conducted by Rudolf Kempe (Strings). Sony. $24.98 (7 CDs).
Vadim Salmanov: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. The Academic Symphony Orchestra of the Leningrad Philharmonic Society conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky. Melodiya. $29.99 (2 CDs).
In the not-so-long-ago days before digital recording, there were some excellent analog performances of both standard and nonstandard repertoire, and these have been gradually finding their way back into availability as companies dig through their archives and look for works and/or performers and/or specific recordings that they think have a good chance of attracting today’s listeners. There are tradeoffs in these re-releases, quite obviously in terms of sonic quality and often in other ways as well, but it is good to have material available on CD that had disappeared with the end of the vinyl era – and some of these older recordings are genuinely interesting. Sir Andrew Davis’ Dvořák cycle is one of them. The preeminent sequence of the nine symphonies remains that of István Kertész and the London Symphony Orchestra, but Davis does a very fine job with another British orchestra, the Philharmonia – the British orchestras of the 1960s-1980s seemed to have a particular affinity for Dvořák. The majority of the symphonic recordings date to 1979 (Nos. 3 and 6-9); Nos. 1 and 5 were recorded in 1980, No. 2 in 1981 and No. 4 in 1982. All are designated as analog recordings even though the early 1980s marked the advent of digital sound – which, however, at that time, was not particularly good and did not match analog quality. Interestingly, it is the 1979 recordings that come off best here, with genuine enthusiasm from the orchestra and plenty of energy from Davis. The four symphonies recorded later, although certainly fine, are somewhat draggy and unenthusiastic by comparison, although they are more than serviceable. The sound quality of all the symphonies is adequate but not much more – it lacks precision and tends to seem a trifle distant. Davis’s filler items – the Slavonic Dances (recorded in 1983), Scherzo Capriccioso (1981) and Carnival Overture (1979) – are quite good, with very fine playing and solid conducting. The remaining three fillers, which fit rather oddly into the set but are certainly welcome as extras, date as far back as 1957 for the Serenade for Winds, with the Serenade for Strings recorded in 1968 and In Nature’s Realm as recently as 1988. The inclusion of works that almost fit but involve different conductors and ensembles is one oddity of some re-releases. Another is that in return for excellent pricing, which this set certainly has, you give up pretty much all the ancillary material: here, for example, there is no booklet, and the only timing and recording information about the works appears on the back of the sleeves in which the individual CDs are packed. Nevertheless, the Davis Dvořák sequence shows fine music-making and more-than-acceptable recording and production, and is certainly a winner at its very reasonable price.
Yevgeny Mravinsky’s recording of the four symphonies of Vadim Salmanov (1912-1978) is interesting in many ways, too, but it also shows some of the pitfalls of re-releases and gets a (+++) rating as a result. Salmanov was a lesser Soviet-era composer who assumed various Communist Party positions and taught at the Leningrad Conservatory. He also dedicated two of his symphonies, the First and Fourth, to Mravinsky, including the Leningrad Philharmonic in the latter dedication. So in some ways it is scarcely surprising that this orchestra and conductor became advocates of Salmanov’s music. There is also the matter of the old and frequently excellent Melodiya label (which appeared as Melodiya/Angel in the United States during the LP era). Some first-rate performances by top-quality artists were made available through the label, but it also had something of a propaganda function, showcasing a variety of lesser works created in Soviet times. The symphonies of Salmanov fall into this category. No 1 dates to 1952, No. 2 (generally considered his best) to 1959, No. 3 to 1963 and No. 4 to 1976. The First and Fourth are in three movements, the others in four. All are skillfully constructed, all have the large scope of many Russian symphonies and occasionally the piquancy and sarcasm of Shostakovich, and none is particularly original-sounding or distinctive. The performances all date to times close to the works’ composition: No. 1 was recorded in 1957, No. 2 in 1960, No. 3 in 1964 and No. 4 in 1977. The sound quality is only so-so – all four recordings are of radio broadcasts, and there are a number of balance issues. The overall style and tone of Salmanov’s symphonies comes across as somewhat warmed-over Shostakovich, with hints of Sibelius here and there. The works are pleasant to hear but of no particular consequence musically. Given that fact, plus the less-than-exemplary sound and the high price, this two-CD set is at best a specialty item for those interested in less-known 20th-century Russian/Soviet composers. It is good to have these symphonies reissued, but not all reissues are necessarily ones that today’s listeners will have any reason to rush out and buy.