For dedicated Western fans of Russian conductor Evgeny Svetlanov, most of the performances in this six-disc set of Rachmaninov's orchestral music will be thoroughly familiar: the three symphonies along with the better known tone poems have all been issued many times on various Soviet and Western labels. For truly dedicated fans, the real finds here will be Svetlanov's recordings of less well known works by Rachmaninov: his Six Choirs for female voices and piano and his Spring Cantata for baritone, chorus, and orchestra along with transcriptions of several songs and solo piano pieces, especially Svetlanov's little known recording of The Bells.
However, listeners unfamiliar with Svetlanov's way with Rachmaninov would be well advised to sample these discs before taking the plunge. Sometimes, as in the recordings of the First Symphony and The Bells, the sound is so hard and harsh that the performances are severely compromised. Other times, as in the recordings of the Second Symphony and the Isle of the Dead, the sound, while not nearly so painful, is still far below contemporary Western standards for clarity and immediacy. But that's just the sound. Nearly all the time in Svetlanov's performances Rachmaninov sounds more like an opportunist looting the works of his predecessors, particularly Tchaikovsky at his most hysterical, than like the strong-willed if morbid individualist he was. In Svetlanov's hands, the First Symphony is nasty, brutish, and loud; the Second flabby, soggy, and sloppy; and the Third alternately soporific and hyperbolic. Worse yet is Svetlanov's The Bells, which seems more of a musical-theatrical variety show than a meditation on life, love, and death. But worst of all is Svetlanov's Isle of the Dead, which sounds less like a carefully calibrated study in grief and more like a professional mourner howling with affected histrionics. It's not a matter of Svetlanov's conducting. A skilled professional, Svetlanov knew exactly what he was doing. And it's not a matter of the performers, though for Western ears, the orchestra may sound edgy and its tone shrill. It's more a matter of the conductor's interpretations being wrong for the repertoire. Though dedicated Svetlanov fans unfamiliar with these recordings will have to hear this set and dedicated Rachmaninov fans unfamiliar with some of the less known works here will have to try it as well, it's difficult to imagine that even the most dedicated fans of either the conductor or the composer will return very often to this set.