Mravinsky Edition Vols 11-20: Music by Beethoven, Richard Strauss, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Brahms Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (Recorded: 1947-1973) (Melodiya / BMG 74321 29459 2; 10 discs)
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The Independent Culture
Yevgeny Mravinsky (1903-1988) was the last of the great rostrum autocrats, a gaunt, softly spoken martinet, deeply religious, aristocratic of bearing and very much his own man. Mravinsky ruled the Leningrad (now St Petersburg) Philharmonic for the best part of half a century; his players were among the best in the land, his methods as rigorous as Fritz Reiner's or George Szell's and his records were always eagerly awaited. I say "were" because the last few years have witnessed an unprecedented deluge of broadcast material, most of it emanating from plundered Russian archives, often in appalling sound. However, this second instalment in BMG's "Mravinsky Edition" reinstates a number of long-awaited official studio and live recordings.

Shostakovich is represented by three symphonies, two of which - the Fifth and the Eighth - Mravinsky premiered. The 1954 Fifth marries velvet and steel, whereas the 1947 Eighth (its first-ever complete recording) suggests massive architecture blasted by war. Although technically compromised, it remains the most devastating recorded statement of what is surely Shostakovich's greatest symphony. The Seventh ("Leningrad') finds the first movement's "bawdy ditty" speeding excitedly towards its main climax, but the effect is extremely convincing.

Even better is a 1957 Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony which, although similar in design to Mravinsky's famous 1960 DG stereo recording, is less obsessively driven. Here the accent is more on spontaneity, whereas a 1949 Pathetique parades some remarkably sweet-centred string-playing - especially towards the end of the first movement. Francesca da Rimini wails and rages, the Capriccio Italien is calculated to the last semiquaver, and the Serenade for Strings reveals abundant detail within a lustrous tonal context. BMG tells us that the Serenade was set down in 1949, whereas Russian Disc label the same performance as "recorded in 1961". And does Mravinsky's massively stated Brahms Third Symphony date from 1973 (BMG's claim) or 1965 (as Memoria would have it)? Certain other items have also appeared elsewhere, though not a strangely unidiomatic 1959 Bruckner Eighth where you recognise each episode, but can't quite grasp how you got there - or why.

A brilliantly played Brahms Fourth raises similar doubts and so (to a lesser extent) do equally virtuosic accounts of Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh. However, Mravinsky charts the full breadth of Strauss's sprawling Alpine Symphony and brings appropriate panache to the tuneful Fourth Symphony of Alexander Glazunov. Other items include Strauss's First Horn Concerto, Rimsky-Korsakov's Tale of the Invisible City of Kitezh and an entertaining Classical pastiche by Mikhail Goldstein (alias Nikolai Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky).

Documentation is excellent and the transfers (from variable originals) are generally first-rate, save for a woefully distorted finale to Beethoven's Fifth. Still, Beethoven is better served elsewhere - unlike Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, all of whom shine resplendent under Yevgeny Mravinsky's inspired direction.