Communist era recordings hit some sour notes: Controversy over Canadian's scheme to exploit enormous Soviet music archive

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A STAMP on the tape box says 'defective'. Illogically, another label instructs: 'When broadcasting, do NOT announce the name of the conductor.'

The box contains a perfectly good recording of the great Russian pianist Emil Gilels playing Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 3 in D Minor in a tender interpretation conducted by Kiril Kondrashin. The censors of the old Soviet broadcasting system, Gosteleradio, suppressed this wonder because Kondrashin had had the audacity to emigrate.

Now the music is being enjoyed by Tristan Del, a California-based businessman who, together with his Russian partners, has obtained the exclusive rights to some 300,000 rare musical recordings in the former Soviet broadcasting archive.

He sits in a studio at the archive in Moscow's Medvedkovo district and listens with glistening eyes. 'What a great touch,' he says as Gilels plays a particularly melting phrase. 'It's like in Hollywood when they put vaseline round the camera lens to make the picture softer.'

Mr Del, a Canadian of Russian origin, believes he stands to make about dollars 1bn ( pounds 675m) from the worldwide marketing of the recordings, which include Dimitri Shostakovich playing his own piano music, Paul Robeson singing in Russia, Mstislav Rostropovich giving the first performance of the Cello Concerto that Benjamin Britten wrote for him, and Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh in a magical combination playing Bach's Double Violin Concerto.

The Russian side of the partnership, the archive itself, will also benefit. Mr Del, a former television producer who heads a company called USSU Arts Group Inc., is providing the archivists with computer equipment to replace their antiquated card indexes and guaranteeing them an equal share of the profits, which he expects to be pounds 2bn all together. In addition, Mr Del is committed to paying royalties to the artists on the recordings or, if they are dead, to their estates. He says Russian lawyers have told him his deal is absolutely watertight and legal.

But the Russian Minister of Culture, Yevgeny Sidorov, is furious and has accused Mr Del of trying to make off with Russia's heritage. Last February an open letter appeared in the newspaper Rossiya, in which a group of leading Russian musicians ostensibly demanded protection from the 'pirate firm USSU Arts Group Inc. headed by Mr Arkady Shadelman from Odessa, now calling himself Tristan Del'. Mr Sidorov's name appeared at the bottom of the list of artists.

The musicians, including the famous piano teacher Vera Gor nostaeva, the conductor Gen nady Rozhdestvensky and the viola player Yuri Bashmet, have since come forward to say they had nothing to do with the letter and Rossiya has issued an apology after admitting it accepted the text without original signatures from the pianist Nikolai Petrov, who is regarded as being loyal to the political authorities.

Mr Del, who denies that his name was ever Shadelman, is now suing Mr Sidorov and Mr Petrov for a record pounds 1.2m in damages for what he calls an 'outrageous anti-Semitic slur' against him. Mr Sidorov was not answering his telephone at the end of last week but his spokesman, Yuri Volegov, would neither confirm nor deny that the minister had signed the letter.

Mr Del believes the ministry is using dirty tricks against him because his deal with the archive represents a coup against Melo diya, the old Soviet state record company that used to release music from the stock. Melodiya, however, had to take into consideration what the Communist bosses thought the people should be allowed to hear and it brought out only a tiny fraction of the treasures stored at Medvedkovo.

(Photograph omitted)