Russian and American music from a Moscow studio
New York — We hear a lot about glasnost these days. In the arts, this has meant a certain (though very possibly only temporary) improvement in matters of cultural exchange. In recordings, it has not had much of an overall impact. And yet, Sheffield Lab has recently released three CDs under the umbrella title ``The Moscow Sessions,'' which is a first in recording history. The Soviets allowed an American team to come in and record a Russian orchestra in Russia. The conductors involved were Lawrence Leighton Smith, an American, and Dmitri Kitayenko, a Russian. The orchestra was the Moscow Philharmonic.
Of itself, the event is unusual enough. More to the point, it is the first time we have been able to have Western recording techniques applied to a Soviet orchestra.
One hearing of the usual Russian recording system makes one realize just how far behind the Russians are in terms of sound perspective and general balancings. Happily, the performances on these three CDs are quite marvelous.
Disc 25 is devoted to Mr. Smith conducting an all-Russian program, including Glinka's ``Russlan and Ludmila'' overture, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, and the prelude to Mussorgsky's ``Khovanshchina.'' The Tchaikovsky is rousingly presented, and hearing how the Muscovites help Smith give a Russian sound to his more international approach makes for a unique document in performance partnership.
Smith is again featured on CD-26, with a splendid, vigorous, dramatic, propulsive reading of Shostakovich's First Symphony. Mr. Kitayenko completes the disc with a stirring performance of Piston's ``The Incredible Flutist'' (when was the last time this entertaining piece was given a major performance anywhere?) and a brooding, smoldering rendition of Barber's ``First Essay for Orchestra.''
CD-27 finds Kitayenko leading Copland (``Appalachian Spring''), Gershwin (``Lullaby''), Griffes (``The White Peacock''), and Ives (``The Unanswered Question''). Smith offers Shostakovich's ``Festive Overture'' and Glazunov's ``Valse de Concert.'' It's a Pops-ish program, but very well performed.
The sound on all three discs is exceptional. The naturalness of the miking (they use as few as possible), the richness of the bass, the bloom in the treble, all point to the unusual care with which this project was approached. Kitayenko conducting American music with such verve and such freshness of impulse is an added musical bonus.
Glasnost cannot be said to be responsible for the two new Nimbus releases of Stravinsky conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the London Symphony Orchestra; he is a regular visitor to that city and was once music director of the BBC Symphony. But the sound on these two releases is also stunning, and the performances have a refreshing directness and power that make them particularly apt for repeated listening.
The London has rarely sounded better in recent years. Rozhdestvensky brings a predictable Russian strength and vigor to these scores. This is especially effective in the ``Symphony in Three Movements,'' which takes on a new power and thrust. On the same CD (NI 5088), the conductor takes a rather restrained view of the 1911 version of ``Petrouchka'' that stresses orchestral sonorities over volatile theatrics.
The same might be said of Rozhdestvensky's ``Firebird Suite'' in the 1910 version that ends with the ``Infernal Dance'' (NI 5087). But the reading of ``Le sacre du printemps'' becomes a gripping and ominous ritual rather than pagan celebration.
Nimbus has built its reputation in Britain on the quality of its engineering. These two CDs lack the wallowing resonance of many Nimbus releases, which, for these ears, is an advantage. In fact, if these Stravinsky releases are an example of things to come, Nimbus may indeed become a major new force in the classical recording business.
Thor Eckert Jr. is the Monitor's music critic.