Soviet masters brought in from the cold

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The Independent Culture
Lovers of classical music in the West will next month at last have the opportunity to hear the extraordinary cache of banned recordings made by some of Russia's greatest 20th-century musicians.

On 2 September, after a prolonged legal wrangle, Telstar Records will release the first 30 CDs of the recordings discovered in the former Soviet broadcasting archive, Gosteleradio, in 1989.

The launch list includes Artur Rubinstein playing Chopin, David Oistrakh playing Brahms, Dmitri Shostakovich accompanying cellist Daniil Shafran in his own sonata, and the Russian pianist Emil Gilels playing Beethoven.

Others still to come include Shostakovich and Prokofiev performing their own music, Mstislav Rostropovich giving his first performance of the cello concerto Benjamin Britten wrote for him, Bach's double violin concerto played in 1947 by Oistrakh and Yehudi Menuhin, and Igor Stravinsky conducting his ballet Petrushka, at his return concert in 1962 after years in exile.

The CDs, which will be priced at pounds 9.99, are only a small selection of some 400,000 hours of recordings made over 70 years which formed part of the archive, kept in a dilapidated Moscow warehouse.

The treasure trove was stumbled upon by Tristan Del, an American record producer of Russian origin, after he asked the director of Gosteleradio if the station had any archives.

It certainly did - 1.2m tapes, to be precise. Their labels read like a roll-call of the best 20th- century musicians. One of the first he found read: "Shostako- vich, Prelude and Fugue in A minor for piano, op. 89. Recorded 5 Feb. 1952. Banned."

Many tapes survived only because the archive's staff refused to obey orders to erase them, instead concealing them in secret rooms or in different boxes. Among the musicians who fell out of favour were Rostropovich, after he was stripped of Soviet citizenship, and Shostakovich, whom Stalin branded too intellectual.

However, not all the tapes remained silent after the performers fell out of favour. Sometimes they would be broadcast under the name of a politically acceptable musician.

Mr Del spent two years drawing up an exclusive contract for the rights to reproduce the recordings worldwide, assisted by a team of Los Angeles lawyers, whose clients include Elton John and Michael Jackson.

Opposition, however, was strong in Russia. As soon as it was signed, he was deluged with law suits and government edicts and denounced as a "pirate" by Yevgeny Sidorov, the Russian culture minister.

Mr Del has won the day and his company, the United States Soviet Union, arranged for the recordings to be digitally remastered using a noise reduction system originally developed by the Soviet Defence Ministry - reportedly used by the KGB for cleaning up surveillance tapes.

To avoid the danger of flooding the market, Telstar, the distributors, intend to release additional recordings piecemeal. After the first 30 are launched on the Revelation label next month, eight titles a month will follow in October, November and December.

More are planned for next year, with profits likely to exceed pounds 2bn in total. Mr Del may be exaggerating when he compares the importance of the archive to the Dead Sea Scrolls - but not, perhaps, by much.