Album review: Yevgeny Svetlanov/USSR Symphony Orchestra – Tamara, etc.

Melodiya get by with a little help from some Western friends.

Genre: Classical (Romantic)
Country: Soviet Union
Release date: 1978
Label: EMI/Melodiya
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: ASD 3066

Yevgeny Svetlanov – conductor
The USSR Symphony Orchestra


Tamara (Mily Balakirev)



Stenka Razin, Op. 13 (Alexander Glazunov)



The Cliff, Op. 7 (Sergei Rachmaninoff)


Total running time:


I cannot tell you the first time I heard Russian classical music, because it was probably in the womb. I grew up around European and Eurocentric classical music of all kinds, from Gregorian chant to Schönberg, from Spain to Siberia and Norway to Armenia, especially since my parents were record dealers in the 1990s and classical was (believe it or not!) a roaring bull market with especially valuable records routinely going for close to a thousand dollars. But nothing ever did it for me quite like the music that came from Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for full orchestra. Dark, turbulent, and mystical, they were almost like stories not set to music, but constructed from music, communicating in imagery, suggestion, and affect. These pieces were meant to be heard loud, not as polite drawing-room music, and when the combined (quite literal) forces of the orchestra bear down on you, the effect is so all-encompassing as to obliterate your world and, in that moment, connect you through fantasy with the composer’s reality in such a way as to be almost religious.

And, of course, it doesn’t get much more Russian than this. This album, which I will simply refer to its catalog number ASD 3660 because it has a front jacket crowded with names, none of which is seemingly more important than the other, was made from Soviet recordings by the state record company Melodiya (whose tentacular array of sub-labels and sub-sub-labels resembles a sort of prototype of the modern Western media conglomerate), with EMI lending its British record presses (at the time, probably the best in the entire world), to bring the product quality up to Western standards and to handle the distribution, which was probably for the best, as the Soviets were too busy building gigantic tank armadas, supersonic airliners that left trails of broken windows in their wake, and a supersized robot space shuttle (that actually worked) to care much about production for trivial purposes like bringing joy to people’s lives. The fate of the Soviet Union in the years after this record’s release so parallels what is happening now in the “victorious” West that it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

Back in 1978 records like these were a big deal, one of the few chances a casual “First World” consumer had of experiencing Russian culture in a more or less authentic context, and even into the 1990s the “EMI Melodiyas” still held some value, but now they are bargain bin fodder so obscure that ASD 3660 doesn’t even have a Discogs entry. On the used market a near-mint copy sells for around $10; with the recording dates provided in the track listing one can easily find all three tracks on YouTube as well. While the sound quality is marginally better than Soviet-made records, don’t expect wonders; it sounds like an early American stereo record from around 1960, made on a budget. Melodiya appear to have used a Living Stereo-style room mic setup, which gives some of the warmth and acoustic sense of space that Living Stereo’s ‘50s and ‘60s records were renowned for, but the detail just isn’t there and the brass climaxes have a harsh edge to them.

With no “audiophile” credentials, this record must rely even more heavily on the performance itself, which is where this record delivers in a way no Western interpretations I’ve heard quite match. You can play classical music poorly by reading it off the page and following the instructions, but to play it well requires a sensitivity to cultural context and one’s fellow musicians to introduce irregularities and deviations. Like a good jazz band has groove and a good rapper has flow, a good orchestra and conductor have tempo rubato, the way a hundred musicians can know, by instinct or by drill, to “steal time” from the beat–suddenly speed up, slow down, pause, or accentuate something, just because it sounds “right”. Like with groove and flow, it’s not something one can learn in school, but from being immersed from an early age in a musical culture. Svetlanov and the USSR Symphony Orchestra (who were without a doubt the best players in Russia; the uniform-wearers attending their concerts would have accepted no less) make the slow parts sound wrenching and the fast parts sound like a frost giant has just picked you up by the feet and is slamming you against a mountainside. It’s sublime in a way so much “epic” music aspires to be but usually misses.

Of course, “epic” goes hand-in-hand with “long”, and indeed, all three of these pieces, but especially the headliner “Tamara”, are too long for the thematic material they have to work with. 19th century Romantic music is especially prone to this, burning through the really interesting developments towards the end of a piece (or worse, about halfway) and smoking the roaches down to the lips to make the pieces bigger, and thus seem more important. It is mitigated however, that all three of the pieces hold some of their best and most memorable ideas in reserve for the climax, so there’s always a nice payoff to the meandering. The climax of “Tamara” is especially brilliant, with hideously discordant chords blaring from the brass in a sudden and shocking explosion of auditory violence. It really does “sound like” a stabbing, the trombones heaving each note into the listener as Tamara’s knife is slammed into her victim.

Such masterful “tone painting” is not limited to just that moment, however, but scattered all over these pieces (especially “Tamara” and “The Cliff”). Little details establishing a scene, mood, thought, or action are around every musical corner, from the undulating strings at the beginning of “Tamara” representing the waters of the river running beneath the titular evil queen’s castle, to the interplay of the themes representing the states of mind of the two conversationalists in “The Cliff”. The album jacket includes extensive liner notes that explain the meaning of the pieces and point out some of the most important themes, which is always appreciated. Even with the help, however, these pieces are quite dense and will take several listens and careful attention to unlock all of their secrets. Unfortunately, misogynistic themes feature prominently in this music, with each piece being piggish towards women from a different angle.

Mily Balakirev’s “Tamara” is the longest piece on the record at a bit over 21 minutes, and the oldest, having been started in 1866 and finished in 1882 after a long bout of mental illness halted Balakirev’s musical career. Despite this, its sounds and harmonies are probably the most “modern” and astringent of the pieces, and its loud parts hit the hardest. The initial scene (and, this being a symphonic poem, it is a quite literal scene) is set by the rumble of basses building from an imperceptible murmur to a deep, dark, murky turbulence over which sail a variety of melodic fragments from various instruments that coalesce into the first melodic theme, first raised by a timorous, tremulous oboe and then passed around the winds. Here is where “Tamara” shows its 1860s roots; it is still partially wedded to the old sonata form wielded by Mozart and Beethoven where they lay all their main ideas out on the table at the outset and the entire piece is those ideas being chopped up and shuffled and inverted and played in different keys until it all comes around full circle; the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, is a perfect example. “Tamara” is not quite that straightforward, but its basic structure and progression has its roots firmly in the eighteenth century, even as its sharp dissonances and eerie, dreadful rumblings from the lower instruments look towards the twentieth.

The big kink in “Tamara” is that this entire first part of the piece is “outside” the castle, and when our hapless victim ventures into the castle, everything previously established is put aside and the music bursts into an up-tempo but stately dance that unfolds almost like a procession, until Tamara herself is introduced with a lilting, “oriental” melody—in other words, a fake Islamic melody, despite the historical Tamar the Great having been the Christian queen of a Christian land, and this is an egregiously shoddy fake too, a perfectly symmetrical little ditty that a child might improvise, played with a touch of swing and some flattened notes for flavor. Here Balakirev falls headfirst into the genie-infested depths of Orientalism, and, unfortunately, stays there, as the bulk of the piece consists of the interaction of this theme with another, a hammering, whirling, rhythmic figure to represent the queen and her captive getting down to business: a full-bore, dick-breaking night of raunchy, depraved, sinful, Satatnic fucking.

Yes indeed, the passions that animate (however indirectly) this massive, mind-bending, 21-minute music puzzle are fundamentally the same that animated Blackie Lawless when he wrote “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)” and rode the outrage of a million overprotective mothers to stardom, and as absurd as it may seem that this orderly procession of conservatory-taught manipulations of two fairly pedestrian melodies might have shocked and titillated people thus, Victorian-era listeners who learned about “The Orient” through boys’ periodicals and penny dreadfuls that were about as grounded in reality as Conan the Barbarian really fell for this, and were utterly taken by the “barbaric” majesty of this blazing instrumental spectacle. All sorts of clever musical devices unfold at warp speed, the tension and volume rising and falling, fingers flying like the valkyries of the Wild Hunt over strings, keys, and valves, a fake-out early climax that all but simulates an orgasmic scream from the trumpets only for the festivities to continue unabated, and the sheer amount of energy and the whirling complexity of moving parts is very exciting…but “Oriental fantasy” is ultimately just white guys jerking off (in multiple senses of the word) about and to things that they don’t understand. Balakirev throws everything he has at this weak material, but at the center of his grand labyrinth there is only emptiness, and the relative soullessness of the middle section contrasts sharply with the haunting, somber beauty of the opening and with Balakirev’s works that stuck to musical ideas that were “closer to home”, so to speak.

After the orgasm scene, Queen Tamara apparently tries to get some more mileage out of her boytoy, with some more increasingly tired variations proceeding in an orderly fashion until the outside theme reasserts itself with a vengeance, blasted out with ripping, bruising chords by the brass with every ounce of their strength, as the used-up victim is dragged out into the dawn, stabbed in the heart, and hurled from the battlements to his death. A soggy middle section can often be mitigated with a good ending, and whole opening scene is reprised, but even darker; where once the first theme felt yearning, reaching, even hopeful, now it, in pieces, is slowly breathed out by the winds like a funeral dirge, ebbing away as the music peels back layer by layer and dissolves into nothing. I really want to love “Tamara”, but all I can do is like it. Without a doubt it is beautifully (if conservatively) constructed, and the USSR Symphony Orchestra absolutely kill it, tearing into the piece like mad dogs but leaving nary a note out of place in doing so. But that surface level, exhausted after the first two or three listens, is really as deep as it goes. Beneath all the affected profundity, there is only Mily Balakirev’s horny, heterosexual, 19th century dick. And, frankly, if I want to hear that, I’ll take “Peach Tree Blues” by Sonny Boy Williamson over this.

The next piece “Stenka Razin” by Alexander Glazunov really isn’t any more profound than “Tamara”, but much more honest about itself; whereas “Tamara” is a huge, epic construction that exudes erudition from every note but is ultimately about nothing important, “Stenka Razin” (1885) is a shameless cheeseball full of catchy melodies based on folk songs nearly everyone in a contemporary Russian audience would have known, based on a myth nearly all of them would have been familiar with, using a conventional sonata form that would have been as easy for a classical audience to follow as a modern verse-chorus pop song, all crafted to evoke feelings of Russian nationalism and heroic adventure. Most of the musical material comes from “Song of the Volga Boatmen”, a barge-haulers’ song passed down orally until it was written down by Mily Balakirev in the early 1860s, and the subject matter is a mythologized account of the last stand of Cossack guerrilla leader Stepan “Stenka” Razin on the Volga River against the army of the tsar, and his murder sacrifice of his mistress to the Volga River in a vain effort to gain divine favor against the tsarists. However, the piece does not really portray any actual events, but instead is intended to do its work through mood and atmosphere, like a film soundtrack without the film, and many passages would not sound out of place in a 1950s Hollywood epic, or even in Star Wars.

Despite its aggressive unsubtlety, “Stenka Razin” has something “Tamara” doesn’t, which is that all of its principal themes kick ass. When “Song of the Volga Boatmen”, hinted at with snatches of melody throughout the song, is finally blasted out in full by the brass section at the climax of the song, it’s an absolute thrill even for a cynical anti-nationalist foreigner, and I imagine the effect on contemporary Russian audiences must have been nothing short of stupendous. The orchestra, too, sounds absolutely jacked despite the poor recording quality, their blistering intensity further magnifying the feeling of witnessing capital-H History unfold. I would be less kind to this music, probably, if I were closer both in time and space to the society it was made for; this piece is more or less a work of propaganda, but it’s so naïve and guileless compared to modern propaganda that to a cynical, postmodern Western mindset it comes across as more camp than sinister, its cheese delicious rather than offensive.

“Stenka Razin” is made of many of the same ingredients as “Tamara”, right down to the introduction that starts with low strings and builds up from there (which “The Cliff” also has, and is a favorite trope in Russian classical music—maybe this is where my bias as a one-time double bass player creep in. The basses, so often given the most marginal parts and drowned out if not silent altogether, shine all the way through ASD 3660, and if there are any redeeming qualities to Melodiya’s sound engineering, one would be that their mix does not neglect the low end. However, “Stenka Razin” is as heroic as “Tamara” is tragic, all its melodies bright and shiny and ebullient, which seems a bit macabre considering the futility of Stenka Razin’s last stand and the senseless murder of his mistress, but the people late 19th century Europe was far less squeamish than us about gratuitous, pointless death.

The final track is “The Cliff” (often translated as “The Rock” or “The Crag” in other recordings), an early work by Sergei Rachmaninoff dated 1892. Based on a short story by Anton Chekhov, “The Cliff” is the most radical of the three pieces on this record, discarding traditional development almost entirely to make everything serve the musical narrative. The musical program is about an old man and a young woman meeting in a roadside inn and the man more or less mansplains his life, values, and personal trauma to the young woman until she is completely submerged in his pain, and this is reflected scene-by-scene in the interplay and development of the principal themes. The orchestra’s sense of time and flow is especially evident with their execution of the trilling, looping flute line that forms the backbone of the woman’s theme; whereas many conductors blow through this theme at a rigid, mechanical pace, Svetlanov and the USSR Symphony Orchestra draw out the ends of the phrases exquisitely, making them sound more lyrical, even speech-like in the way the lines trail off.

The woman’s “listening” theme is returned to several times, sort of dividing the piece into scenes, each new one raising the stakes from the previous one as the melodies become more and more agitated. About halfway through the woman’s theme disappears for the last time and the music builds up and up into a brutal restatement of the opening with liquid-nitrogen cold harmonies from the brass, almost foreshadowing a similar climax in Rachmaninoff’s masterpiece “Isle of the Dead”. After this the music collapses in defeat and the basses noodle on some of the opening material again before dying away. Rachmaninoff was only twenty years old when he composed “The Rock”, and thus this isn’t quite up to the level of the aforementioned “Isle of the Dead” of his other mature works, being musically simpler and sticking closely to the musical vocabulary of his teachers Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, but even in this incomplete stage Rachmaninoff’s sound is extremely compelling, especially with the power of Svetlanov and the USSR Symphony Orchestra behind it.

This is a historically interesting record with some good (if not truly great) examples of the golden age of Russian classical music, but ASD 3066 was probably always destined for obscurity—a casual listener of classical music probably won’t appreciate the power of these performances enough to look past the record’s serious flaws. However, if you, too, appreciate Russian classical music and collecting different performances, don’t hesitate to snatch this one up if you see it in a record store one day. Just don’t expect it to ever go up in value.
Rating: 65%

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