Once again, Eloquence comes up with exciting CD premiers, this time from the Russian repertoire and a conductor not well known to me - Silvio Varviso. I am familiar with a 2004 Eloquence reissue containing a Philips collection of Opera Intermezzi & Ballet Music (recorded in 1974 and 1984). I confess to not being at all impressed with it, so I did not have particularly high expectations for this new CD, also conducted by Varviso. Well, I was pleasantly surprised!
I started with the Borodin 2nd Symphony, which to my mind has had very few completely successful recordings from an interpretive standpoint. Conductors tend to weigh this symphony down, and pull and tug its tempos all out of proportion, thus losing most of its musical structure and meaning. Exceptions exist - Martinon and Ansermet certainly come to mind, as does Enrique Batiz, whose blistering account for ASV remains the most satisfactory recorded version. It is interesting that Varviso turns to Ansermet's orchestra for his reading of this symphony. But, alas, the Suisse Romande hadn't improved much in overall finesse, refinement or technical prowess in the intervening years since Ansermet's recording in 1954 to this one dating from 1968. However, let that not deter you from this recording, for it is exceptional.
I've said it before, I'll say it again - there is something to be said for an orchestra which has to work at it, opposed to one which can play this stuff in its sleep. They've become so technically proficient and have achieved such perfection of ensemble - and rarely get to play anything outside the standard repertoire, they've played all this music so many times - they just play on autopilot. That's why I enjoy (re)discovering recordings from the 50s, 60s and 70s. Orchestras almost always sounded fresher, more energetic and eager to discover. They still had a passion for making music.
Enter this Borodin Second. As led by Varviso, this reading is literally infused with freshness, energy, spontaneity, and a sense of discovery rarely heard in alternative recordings of it. Not only that, Varviso brings a real sense of drama from this orchestra. Just listen to those powerful tympani strokes; spectacular, full-bowed, incisive string articulation; and singing, Russian ardor from all sections. But it's his respect for and realization of the printed score that ultimately bring the greatest rewards. He does not tug about the tempos. Instead he brings a real meaning and sense of direction. And, as a result, the compositional structure at last becomes clear. And let me tell you - it is a revelation. There is so much inner detail brought to the fore, along with essential light and shade, and a sensible, musical phrasing (combined with the ever-so-slight rubato here and there), that suddenly this symphony makes complete musical sense. I can't ever remember hearing such a musically, structurally sound reading of, especially, the first movement. Combining the above attributes with a real sense of drama and Russian bite, I came away from listening to this with just one word - Wow!
However, as I noted above, the Suisse Romande was not the most refined and polished ensemble in the 50s and 60s. There is some scrappy playing here and there (notably from the woodwinds and just occasionally from the violins as well), and that sour oboe tone, which marred so many of Ansermet's recordings, is regretfully still present here. (Seriously, why would they keep such a horrible sounding principle oboist for so long?). And the recording quality is not ideal. Though full and warm, it is generally rather congested and strained, the orchestra sounding lackluster. Overall I still prefer it over Martinon's famed recording with the LSO, whose recorded sound always comes across sounding a little too raw, unrefined and aggressive for my taste. None I know can approach the spectacular ASV recording for Batiz and the Symphony Orchestra of the State of Mexico - for sound, musical involvement and sheer excitement.
All of these characteristics apply in equal measure to Tchaikovsky's Francesa da Rimini. Simply, it is a performance which makes more musical sense than I have encountered before - for all the same reasons noted above in the Borodin. But Varviso reveals even more here. In that very long, sometimes wayward-sounding central section, he has a natural feel for when to move it along and when to relax, with just the right amount at just the right moments. It's never done merely to make a point and certainly never sounds mannered. It's just a natural rubato and phrasing of the musical line, combined with the building of tension to the point of inevitable release, resulting in an engrossing musical experience. I've never felt this to be one of Tchaikovsky's most memorable melodic utterances, but Varviso nearly convinces us otherwise.
The coupling is a well played, well recorded performance of Rachmaninov's The Rock, conducted by Walter Weller. While it is always good to hear again, it is available on a previous Eloquence release, coupled with Weller's recording of the same composer's 1st Symphony. Why they chose to include it (again) here is a mystery. It would have been better if another rarity from Varviso could have been found.
Be that as it may, this CD is a real discovery. Once again Eloquence has unearthed a couple of real gems which deserve wide circulation - for which we should be eternally grateful.