Some listeners may recall the first time some of these recordings were issued in the West as part of a licensing agreement between communist Melodiya and capitalist Capitol, in the stereo '60s. Others may recall the first time some were issued on compact disc in the West by Olympia in the digital '80s. For yet others, this six-disc box set may provide the introduction not only to these recordings with Evgeny Svetlanov leading the USSR Symphony Orchestra, but to this repertoire: the fin de siècle orchestral music of Vasily Kalinnikov and Alexander Scriabin. Scriabin was famous in his lifetime as a brilliant pianist and as a leader of the musical avant-garde, and his music enjoyed a revival in the psychedelic '60s. On the other hand, if Kalinnikov was known at all in his lifetime, it was as a theater bassoonist who composed on the side, and his music is currently known primarily through these recordings and several others.
Svetlanov's determination to record for posterity all the works of Russian symphonic music is to be commended, but he was not entirely well-suited for every composer whose music he undertook to champion. While his advocacy of Kalinnikov is wholly admirable, his interpretations of Scriabin are ill-advised. Kalinnikov's two symphonies receive robustly Romantic readings, with especially poetic slow movements, while his otherwise unrecorded incidental music for Tsar Boris gets the widescreen treatment it needs to succeed. The works on the third disc are generally weaker, but anyone who's gotten this far with Kalinnikov will likely go the rest of the way with few regrets. The same cannot be said of Svetlanov's Scriabin, which is grievously flawed in both execution and conception. The Soviet orchestra's distinctive sound -- brash brass, pungent winds, heavy strings, and balances that emphasize the lower end of the ensemble -- is all wrong for this music, which lives and dies by its ability to simultaneously sound sensuous and sublime. Worse yet are Svetlanov's interpretations. Rather than leading the listener upward into ever more rarified realms of thoughts, Svetlanov's performances dive ever deeper into the darker realms of the libido. Alhough there is perhaps some degree of justification for this -- until dissuaded by his publisher, Scriabin did intend to call what we now know as the Poème de l'extase the "Poème orgiaque" -- these performances sound all too often like cheap seduction music played by undergraduate music majors to impress coeds. As always in this series, the liner notes contain minimal information, revealing neither the identity of the pianist in Scriabin's Piano Concerto, nor where or when these recordings were made. The sound is usually more than tolerable, although listeners unacquainted with Soviet recordings' tendency toward stridency are herewith advised.