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Orchestral Pictures from Russia

Music by Mussorsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov etc

USSR Symphony Orchestra / Yevgeny Svetlanov

Recorded 1963-1986

Melodiya / BMG 74321 34165 2, 2 discs

Two-and-a-half hours of narrative fantasy, from the Scriabinesque chirrupings of Liadov's The Enchanted Lake to the breathless abandon of Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances". Yevgeny Svetlanov's exuberant characterisations enjoy a lively if rather coarse sound frame, with steel-edged strings offset by reedy winds and blaring brass. The Polovtsi chorus has the vocal energy of a soccer crowd and Shostakovich's bald orchestration of the Khovanshchina prelude (which is harmonically quite different to Rimsky's) sets up a fateful tolling.

Other "pot-boilers" include the Sorochintsy Fair "Gopak", Rimsky's imperious Russian Easter - a superb performance - and a recklessly accelerating Night on a Bare Mountain. Balakirev's Islamey is played live in Lyapunov's hectic orchestration; there's a sequence of Liadov mini-dramas, Baba Yaga the witch, the evil Kikimora, the dream-like Enchanted Lake and two rarities, From Olden Times and a hugely imposing From the Apocalypse. Arensky's A Dream of the Volga is supposed to be "threatening" but sounds more like Slavic Elgar (the central section sets a famous Russian folk-song), Glazunov's Spring and Romantic Intermezzo are gorgeously aromatic, Rimsky's Sadko shifts moods with the frequency of a film score and the programme ends with Kalinnikov's harmlessly cavorting Nymphs.

Every piece has its story, every story has its charms and there's very little that I wouldn't want to hear again.

Robert Cowan Delius: A Mass of Life, Requiem

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Richard Hickox

Chandos CHAN 9515(2)

A Mass of Life might have been a less contentious title for Delius's forgotten Requiem. Better yet, The Song of the Earth. But that was already taken. "This is not a religious work," said Delius after its premiere in 1922, but religion was all the British public were buying in the wake of the Great War.

And who could blame them? There had to be a reason for the wholesale slaughter, there had to be faith, hope, the promise of a better life hereafter. Instead of which Delius offered his pantheistic sermon. Decay and renewal in the key of life. It was a dress-rehearsal, if you like, for the great Nietzschian ramble that was A Mass of Life, but the timing was terrible. I can't say its neglect has been any great loss - there's only so much chromatic yearning one can take - but it's good to have it resurrected in this context: a gigantic upbeat to the Mass. That, of course, breaks over us like a tidal wave, the most arresting, the most exalted, the most fervent opening paragraph in all Delius - everyman's ode to hedonism. Hickox and his forces reach for it, stretch for it. It doesn't quite suggest meltdown a la Beecham, but lift-off is duly achieved.

A Mass of Life is a long work, an indulgent work. The spirit of live and let live, as epitomised in its two sprawling "Dance-Songs" - much la-la-la-ing from the airborne ladies chorus - does from time to time pall, and don't we hear a little too much of Zarathustra en route to the last midnight. Peter Coleman-Wright negotiates the wide-ranging tessitura bravely but the words, one feels, are secondary to mood - and that's as much Delius's problem as his. Still, there is plenty of purple here to sustain us - the echoing horns of the introduction to Part 2 make for a quite ravishing effect - and the promise of a closing chorus (just you wait for the final cadence) to put even that opening invocation in the shade, concentrates the mind wonderfully through some of the longueurs.

Edward Seckerson

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