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A personal tribute from DAVID WILKINS


Thanks to the wonderful Decca Entartete Musik series and books like Berta Geismar's The Baton and the Jackboot we know a fair amount about the vicissitudes of creative and performing life under the Nazis. Give or take the putative Shostakovitch memoirs, much less is currently known about the tribulations of those who laboured amid the stench of ideological effluent that flowed into the creation of the Gulags. One great survivor of the Kafkaesque absurdity which constrained composers and performers throughout the dark Soviet years and into the welcome but less-than-ameliorating light of Russian democracy was Yevgeny Svetlanov. He had endless tales to tell -- and a number of them he did relate : sometimes famously vodka-fuelled, of course, as, I suppose, he imagined a good son of the Motherland should be.

What matters more, however, is the legacy of concertgoers' memories and the recordings that drift in and out of the catalogue showing what an essential champion of the soul of Russian music Svetlanov was. He was less steely-eyed and autocratic than Mravinsky, nothing like as charming as Mark Ermler or as bizarrely forgivable as Rozhdestvensky, but Svetlanov's years of directorship of the USSR (later, Russian) State Symphony Orchestra produced a goldmine of performances that should, if we lived in a fairer world, survive and thrive as a testament to an idiosyncratic sound and the passion of their conductor. You can't imagine that he ever wanted all the world's symphony orchestras to sound alike. Sometimes a bit rough and ready, but always real: Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Rachmaninov, Balakirev, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin were all fabulously served -- I'd say that you can seek them out on various Melodiya 'Twofers' but the tides of the catalogue, regrettably, wait for no good-taste. Grab what you can find while you can.

I distinctly remember the excitement I felt at the prospect of an Elgar 2nd Symphony recording from Svetlanov and his Russian forces in the seventies. As it happens, I guess that it was a bit disappointing. How brave, though, how typically enterprising, that he found the challenge of Elgar not one of nationalistic sympathy but of universal musical engagement.

Anyone who saw Svetlanov in the television series about the Philharmonia Orchestra will remember him as the bull-like man who, deflated by illness, could barely more than grunt when rudely accosted by cameras in the green room. Let's remember, though, that he forced himself onto the podium and proceeded to galvanise the orchestra into a rehearsal of Mahler's 5th that rendered all thoughts of his weakness otiose.

I shall always think of him as a man who thought deeply and sought wisdom, who walked in the woods, was as Russian as Chekhov and is, entirely, irreplaceable.

Copyright © 12 May 2002 David Wilkins, Eastbourne, Sussex, UK




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