Treasures from the old Soviet Union The West is just beginning to hear recordings of some of the century's greatest artists and most revealing performances

May 31, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Several years ago, when what had been the Soviet Union changed over from socialism to a free-market economy, Soviet archives of recorded music became commercially available to the West. These were not ordinary archives. They consisted of more than 400,000 tapes that had been recorded over 70 years.

The performances, few of which had been available in the West, featured not only great Soviet musicians such as pianist Emil Gilels, violinist David Oistrakh and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, but also Western artists such as pianist Arthur Rubinstein, violinist Yehudi Menuhin and conductor Herbert von Karajan, whose performances had been recorded during visits to the Soviet Union.

As The New York Times, without exaggeration, put it: "the list is a roll-call of the best 20th-century musicians -- the quality and quantity [of which] are unprecedented."

The question of who owned these tapes was a thorny one. Western record companies struck licensing deals in different ways. And everyone profited -- except the artists and their heirs.

Some small companies, mostly Italian, simply pirated substandard versions of the tapes, releasing them on cheaply mastered discs and often with flimsy or no annotation. Certain big companies -- principally Germany's BMG (which is known as RCA Victor in the United States) and Japan's Denon -- licensed tapes from the bureaucrats who once managed (and now "owned") the formerly state-owned institutions of Radio Ostankino (Denon's route) and of Melodiya Records (BMG's practice).

This is even more complicated than it sounds. Recordings in the former Soviet Union were often taped live either from radio broadcasts or concert performances. But even conventional studio recordings were the property of Radio Ostankino as well as of Melodiya -- because both were state agencies and everything was broadcast. While Denon has not prevented BMG from marketing these performances in Japan, BMG has so far succeeded in keeping Denon out of the United States.

This is unfortunate, because while BMG has concentrated upon musicians well-known in the West such as Sviatoslav Richter, Gilels and Oistrakh, Denon has focused upon important artists, such as pianists Heinrich and Stanislas Neuhaus, Oleg Boshnyakovich, Vladimir Sofronitsky and Maria Grinberg, who were never permitted to perform in the West.

But now the situation has been further complicated by another player in this Aladdin's cave of musical treasures: Revelation Records. This division of England's Telstar Records has struck its own licensing deal with Radio Ostankino. Over the last two years, Revelation has released about 100 CDs of Russian material in Great Britain, and the company has found a U.S. distributor in California willing to take on BMG. The entire Revelation catalog is now available in some stores here at about $15 a disc.

Some of the releases -- such as Richter's performances of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (RV10064) and Evgeny Kissin's of the two Chopin concertos (RV10054) -- are the same performances as those on BMG, cost as much (or more), are not mastered as well and come with inadequate, often inaccurate, annotation. But other performances are simply not to be found anywhere else, except on an occasional pirate, and the recorded sound is generally much superior to the bootlegged versions.

Where else, for example, will one hear Yuri Temirkanov, the Baltimore Symphony's music director-designate, whip up the Russian State Symphony to a Dionysian frenzy in a live 1981 performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 2? Or give a fine accompaniment to pianist Andrei Gavrilov's wildly bravura account of Beethoven's Concerto No. 3 (RV10023)?

The historic value of some performances is beyond calculation. Such is the case in a transcript of a live broadcast by Richter of an all-Liszt program in 1958 (RV10011), in which the great Russian can be heard in performances of material he was to drop from his repertory: a "Gnomenreigen," taken at a tempo that not even Simon Barere would have dared and a "Mephisto Waltz" so original that it will make you believe you are hearing this tired warhorse for the first time.

Another extraordinary CD contains Arthur Rubinstein's legendary all-Chopin recital in Moscow on Oct. 1, 1964 (RV10013). Rubinstein recorded the B-Flat Minor ("Funeral March") Sonata, F-Sharp Minor Polonaise and Barcarole commercially several times. But none of those recordings capture the pianist's grand manner, daring and velvet tone quite as successfully as this disc does. The great Rubinstein has a memory slip in the scherzo of the "Funeral March" Sonata, but the sheer chutzpah in which he brazens his way out of it more dramatically demonstrates his extraordinary charisma than any of his note-perfect studio performances.

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