Jeremy Lee writes
Melo Classic, a very new label (established in 2013) specialising in issuing historical radio recordings and performances for the first time on disc, seems set out to be one of the most exciting happenings on the recent classical music scene. All of its 80 releases so far are recordings enjoying their first CD release, thereby resurrecting a huge treasure trove of unknown performances, both by established greats and more obscure musicians. As its existence and distribution was made known to me only about a month or so ago, I didn’t know where to start tapping into their catalog, so I went for the performer and repertoire that I was probably most familiar with. Thus the disc under review: Kondrashin and the Staatskapelle Dresden performing repertoire not normally associated with both performing entities.
To most Kondrashin excels in music that is driven and exciting, and yours truly can surely testify to this claim with his roller-coaster Shostakovich 4 on Profil with the same orchestra on the disc under review, as well as a similarly thrilling Concertgebouw Mahler 7 on Tahra. With Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll opening the programme Kondrashin reveals another side of his artistry: a beautifully reflective artist with a true sense of long-lined lyricism. Collectors familiar with his Mahler recordings on Melodiya may feel that the slow movements are taken at too fast a tempo to truly relax, yet even in those moments Kondrashin demonstrates an impeccable sense of architecture and rubato, and in this rather broad performance of the Idyll (clocking at 19:30) we can clearly hear Kondrashin’s gifts for shaping a slow movement without the complaint of it being too hurried. He invests loving care in the opening and closing moments with particular attention to instrumental balance and detail, while the more animated central section exudes a real sense of elation.
Similar observations may apply to the first two movements of the suite from Ravel’s Mother Goose, a performance that concludes with a spectacular Apotheosis in which Kondrashin goes for the jugular with dazzling percussion playing. Best of all is the pentatonic Laiderronette movement, taken at an exceptionally swift tempo (which the orchestra has no problems keeping up with, I must add, as opposed to Boulez’s New York players in their recording on Sony). “Thrilling” is not a word that would normally be used to describe a petit dance depicting a princess playing with bubbles, but that’s what we get here. In fact taking the whole suite into consideration Kondrashin probably reveals the most emotional and dynamic contrast of any version I’ve heard, in stark contrast to Giulini’s later two versions which is uniformly blanketed under a patina of saintly and hazy etherealness (not that I didn’t like it).
Rounding up the disc is Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, a work that unlike the previous two has been commercially recorded by Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra in 1959 (that means a year before this Dresden recording). The timings between the two performances are very similar (with the exception of the broader finale in Moscow), but by and large they are very different performances, mainly due to the orchestra. The Moscow strings have a heftier and richer tone quality that sounds larger than the taut and sometimes gritty Dresden players and display more freedom of expression, but the Dresden performance is to these ears superior in terms of precision and charm. Kondrashin’s view is neither particularly driven nor relaxed, but he obviously enjoys the music and successfully conveys such enthusiasm to the orchestra, one that has not recorded Tchaikovsky all that often. And speaking of the orchestra: in all three works the distinctively ebony Dresden sound is delightfully evident, and the quality of the playing is very impressive even by today’s standards.
The mono radio sonics from 1955 (Wagner) and 1960 (the remainder) is quite good for its vintage, and has been lovingly restored for modern ears by Lynn Ludwig, the founder of the label. The Wagner is a live recording and audience noise is detectible but never intrusive. A note on the presentation: the disc is housed in a “Digipak” and comes with a booklet (only in English) with fascinating notes by Michael Waiblinger and archival photos. Incidentally all this and the front and back covers can be downloaded from Melo Classic’s website. The price is also very reasonable: $100HKD for a single CD (in contrast to some other historical labels which charge you around $50 more). Currently Melo Classic is only distributed physically in some countries, mainly Asian, but they provide mail order for listeners in countries without distribution. Anyway, wherever you happen to live, I would urge you to grab this invaluable addition to Kondrashin’s discography immediately.
- Album name: Wagner: Siegfried-Idyll; Ravel: Ma Mere l’oye; Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings
- Performers: Kirill Kondrashin (conductor); Staatskapelle Dresden
- Label: Melo Classic MC 5001
- Sonics: Mono ADD
- Total playing time: 65:24