Vladimir Spivakov / National Philharmonic of Russia

From Russia with Music

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It is quite enjoyable to hear the National Philharmonic of Russia performing compositions by the country's musical heroes, and Vladimir Spivakov does a first-rate job of conducting. The first treat is Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Three Wonders," a march from the opera Tsar Sultan, which is beautiful, sparkly, and simply wondrous in the high registers. The flute and harp passage is ethereal, the strings are vast and singing, and each nuance of feeling is conveyed. The much beloved fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet is Tchaikovsky's contribution to the album. The music builds in urgency, with fast passages played with great energy and vigor, and there is much emotion, as is fitting for the tale of the star-crossed lovers. The famous love theme is first heard in the low strings in a most elegant and restrained fashion, but when it returns it is full and lush: one can hear all the details, like the triplets under the strings. The string instruments play with perfect attacks and they are full of punch when necessary. This is an orchestra that is perfect and precise with its timing, but its artistry is what captures the listener. Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, are each unique. The first features violently bowed passages and very 20th-century harmonies, while the second is a lovely waltz with more interesting tonalities than 19th century waltzes in its lush orchestration. The orchestra's sense of timing and tension within the lines here is superb. The third dance is moody yet bright at the beginning, and the piece has a fairytale-like quality, a rather programmatic feel. The concluding work is Three Russian Songs for Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 41, and Rachmaninov truly gets wonderful colors out of the orchestra that complement the voices. Particularly enjoyable are the very modern-sounding string melody and harmonies in the first song, and the almost reverential quality of the second song: there is none of Rachmaninov's over-the-top Romanticism here. The last song is haunting with a march-like, militaristic feel; brief and austere, there are echoes of Carmina Burana not likely to escape the listener. Spivakov and his orchestra give a marvelous performance. The treble is certainly favored on this recording, which is sometimes advantageous and sometimes not. Another criticism of the recording quality is that the sound is rendered a bit flat, needing more ring or reverb.

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