What ever happened to the Leningrad Philharmonic? The Soviet Union's finest orchestra seems to be far less frequently recorded these days than various lesser ensembles in Moscow. Back int the '50s and '60s it was the Leningrad orchestra that was given the bulk of attention in the Russians' own recordings, that made the big international tours (always wildly successful), and that made two series of recordings in the West under optimum conditions, for Deutsche Grammophon.Some of the 1961 stereo recordings have been reappearing lately on DG's Privilege label, and all of them are worth attention.
First, in the very first Privilege release in this country, came the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies, conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky (2535,23/237). Then we had Rostropovich playing the same composer's "Variations on a Rococo Theme" and the Schumann Cello Concerto, his finest recorded performances of both works, with Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting (2535.112). Now, under Rozhdestvensky, we have a spectacular coupling of super-virtuoso performances of eight of the most striking numbers from Khachaturian's ballet "Gayaneh" with still more Tchaikovsky, "Francesca da Rimini" (2535.327). This is a most impressive demonstration of the quality of the orchestra, and how grand even such lightweight stuff as the Sabre Dance and its companion pieces can sound when played for all it's worth under a conductor who is both able to find the substance in it and not ashamed to enjoy it. The sound does not in any way show its age; the disc (or the cassette, 3335.327) is a knockout.
More Tchaikovsky, but most of it far less familiar than "Francesca" or the symphonies, turns up on a Philips disc devoted to ballet music from his operas, with Colin Davis conducting the Convent Garden Orchestra (9500.508; cassette 7300.704). The one well-known opera represented here is "Eugene Onegin," from which Davis offers the seldom-heard "Ecossaise" as well as the Polonaise and Waltz (the latter on its own, without the Act II Introduction). From "The Maid of Orleans" there are an Entr'acte, a Gypsy Dance and a Dance of Jesters and Tumblers; from the "Oprinchnik," a brief set of Dances; from "The Sorceress," the Introduction and another Dance of Tumblers (lots of these in Russian operas), and from "Cherevichki" "The Slippers," a revision of a work originally titled "Vakula the Smith," the Introduction, Russian Dance and Cossack Dance.
Davis' prosaic handling of the "Onegin" excerpts sets the level for the performances, but they're all tidy enough and very well recorded, in case you are interested in exploring this out-of-the-way but by no means unattractive material. There is more of this sort of thing - a whole side of excerpts from Tchaikovsky's first opera, "The Voyevoda" (unrelated to his much later orchestral piece by the same title), and selections from "The Oprichnik" and "Mazeppa" - in performances by the Bamberg Symphony under Janos Furst, rather murkily recorded, on Turnabout QTV-S34548.
Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who together gave us a powerhouse but uncompelling assortment of Russian pops favorites a year or two back, have turned their attention to Central Europe with much more success. On DG 2531.054 (cassette 3301.054) the program comprises the three "Hungarian Dances" which Brahms himself orchestrated (nos. 1, 3 and 10), the first and last of the "Slavonic Dances" in Dvorak's Op. 46, "Les Preludes" by Liszt and "The Moldau" by Smetana. These are all absolutely gorgeous performances, with vigor, enthusiasm and real conviction in every phrase. "Les Preludes" is brought off with stupendous panache, and now must take pride of place over even the marvelous Boult version (Quintessence PMC-7050) by virtue of the Chicagoans' superb playing and DG's magnificent recording. In the score of "The Moldau," Smetana marked the first single stroke of the triangle, just before the entry of the big theme, "Con eleganza," and here it really is elegant. That, indeed, is the word for the whole grand package.