Russian Symphonies Not by Tchaikovsky

Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar.

That there exists a choice, if small, body of 19th-Century Russian symphonic works not by Tchaikovsky is a well-kept secret in the West.

But the symphonies of such practitioners as Sergei Taneyev, Mily Balakirev, Vassily Kallinikov or even the better-known Alexander Borodin are likely to remain CD-player fodder, to be savored at home where their faults--if not being Tchaikovsky is a fault--can be overlooked in favor of their often grand melodic flights and sturdily colorful orchestrations.

The Borodin Second was once a concert staple in the West. Why has it disappeared? Insufficiently neurotic? Or does that expression date this writer?

Borodin's less tightly constructed but similarly heroic First Symphony (1867) has never been a staple anywhere. Listening to it at home, for the first time in perhaps 20 years, recently provided a satisfying 35 minutes, while the brief, graceful Third Symphony (fleshed out and orchestrated by Glazunov after Borodin's death) makes one wish that Borodin's output had been larger, or at least that he'd finished more of what he started.

The First and Third symphonies are newly recorded (RCA Victor 61674) in big-hearted interpretations by the State Symphony of Russia under its longtime music director, Evgeny Svetlanov.

In the hall, this orchestra can sound exceedingly raucous, as it did when it played the Music Center (as the U.S.S.R. State Symphony) a few seasons back. With some of the sonic blatancies curbed by sensitive engineering, the vigor shines through and the endearingly Russian idiomatic qualities--the huge oboe sound, the roaring, vibrating brasses--remain intact.

What happened between Borodin's First and Taneyev's Fourth Symphony (1897) was Tchaikovsky, who taught music to whine while turning his back on Russian folk idioms in favor of a personal, cosmopolitan style.

Taneyev was best known in his lifetime as a pianist (he gave the first Moscow performance of his friend Tchaikovsky's B-flat-minor Concerto) and an educator. He was also a gifted composer in a style that looks back to Borodin.

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Taneyev's Fourth Symphony has in its outer movements some of the chunky grandeur of Borodin. But that huge, rolling second theme in the first movement, whose return in the finale brings the symphony full-circle, is wholly Taneyev's and an inspiration that would do any composer proud, while the attractive slow movement brims with the languorous Orientalisms so widely employed by Russian nationalist composers.

All the right feelings and impressions about the Fourth Symphony are conveyed by an irresistibly brash, vital, old-style Russian performance from the Novosibirsk Philharmonic--the pride of southwestern Siberia--under Arnold Katz (Russian Disc 11 008).

Its disc-mate is the same composer's less consistently engaging, posthumously published Second Symphony.

Recorded esoterica always seems to come at least in pairs, so there's a second new version of the Taneyev Fourth, a lumbering affair from the Moscow Radio and Television Orchestra under American conductor Peter Tiboris (Bridge 9034). The latter is, however, of value for offering the only currently available recorded edition of Taneyev's lovely duet for soprano and tenor employing the major themes of Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet."

The pop industry has since appropriated the big tune, but Taneyev did it much better, while making it rather too demanding of the youthful soloists heard here under Tiboris' baton, Stella Zambalis and John Daniecki.

Major singers, and a conductor able to supply the requisite tension and lyric breadth, could make this score a hit.

Of Rachmaninoff's three symphonies, only the Second has entered the repertory. But the darker-hued First, whose dismal failure at its 1897 premiere led to the composer's celebrated nervous collapse, while less generous than the Second in its doling out of schmaltz, can be gripping in as dramatic and tautly organized a performance as that by the London Symphony under the energetic, probing, above all engaged Andre Previn of pre-Los Angeles Philharmonic days. His interpretation comes as part of an attractive, mid-priced EMI set (64530, 3 CDs) containing the composer's three symphonies, the "Symphonic Dances" and "Isle of the Dead," all originally recorded by Previn and the LSO in the 1970s.

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