Remembering Yevgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002)

Yevgeny Svetlanov in 1979 (photo: LSO)Yevgeny Svetlanov in 1979 (photo: LSO)

To mark the 10th anniversary of the death of Russian conductor and composer Yevgeny Svetlanov, we reprint Alan Blyth's classic interview from the March 1970 issue of Gramophone...

Even talking through an interpreter, I found that the distinctive character of the Russian musician could be easily discerned in Yevgeny Svetlanov. The business-like yet very involved way he spoke about himself and his art seemed to me fairly typical of Soviet musicians of the second generation, men whose obvious commitment to the regime does not detract from their musical judgement or clearheadedness.

Svetlanov's upbringing was more-or-less indistinguishable from the many musicians of the Western world that I have spoken with, one important exception apart — his parents worked at the Bolshoi (they were both singers in the company), so that the young boy had music and theatre about him all the time and in fact sang in the Bolshoi's children's choir in various Russian operas.

After school, he went to the Gnessin Institute and studied piano, composition and conducting with, among others, Shaporin, Neuhaus (Richter's teacher) and Alexander Gauk. 'My original idea was to be a pianist and I began my professional career by giving recitals. My first conducting engagement was with the Moscow Regional Philharmonic in 1951. I don't believe that you can really become a conductor without first having been a competent instrumentalist'.

For a while he was in the musical department of Moscow Radio; then came the opportunity to work at the Bolshoi. 'At first I was a repetiteur — an essential training, I think, for any young musician. Then I became successively conductor and chief conductor. In all, I worked 10 years with that theatre. But today I'm not anxious to return to opera because I think it means too many compromises. Opera is a very complex medium in which the conductor only too rarely is a true interpreter of the music. Too often he is merely a glorified repetiteur or an accompanist. You are so dependent on other people and factors — the producer, designer, artists. If anyone happens to be feeling ill or off-colour, your own performance is bound to suffer. On the concert platform, I hardly need to say, the conductor is really in charge.'

Svetlanov first met his present orchestra — the USSR State Symphony — in 1954, when he took charge of one of his own pieces because another conductor was ill. After that he directed them off and on for some years before succeeding Ivanov as principal conductor in 1965. In the meantime he had made his first overseas trip, with the Bolshoi to La Scala, and his London debut, with the LPO, although he had been outside Russia as early as 1953, when he visited Bucharest.

We then spoke about his current and also his favourite orchestral repertory. 'Of course, I have done nearly all the well known Russian works and I like conducting Bach and Mozart. As far as Beethoven is concerned, I enjoy the larger symphonies — the Third, Fifth, Seventh and Ninth; Brahms, too, the Third and Fourth symphonies, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartók, Honegger, several of whose works I've conducted for the first time in Russia. But my favourite among Western composers is Mahler — he's as popular in Moscow as in London, and last year a complete cycle of his symphonies was given in Moscow by different orchestras and conductors.

'Another great favourite of mine is Rachmaninov who has been much underrated by critics. They are wrong, I think, when they fail to recognise him as a first-class composer. His symphonies in particular show an unrepeatable individuality and, of course, the concertos are excellent too. Scriabin is another Russian composer who is due for a justified come-back. You know Koussevitsky and your own Albert Coates admired him very much and they used to play his music. Then he went through a dead period — now there's a revival of interest, although he has always been relatively popular in Russia.

'Then there's the modern Soviet repertory. I like conducting the Shostakovich symphonies — at least the best ones, from the Fourth to the Tenth. Yes, I think the Second and Third are interesting in their way— they fulfil the task intended for them — to express the atmosphere of the early days of the Republic. And I agree that they are interesting in his development as a symphonist. I also perform the symphonies, ballets and cantatas of Prokofiev. I think these composers show the way to our future — their traditions are the ones we want to develop.'

Svetlanov thus took a reasonably orthodox view of the present Soviet musical scene and he went on to suggest other present-day Russian music we ought to get to know in his opinion. 'The Myaskovsky symphonies — most of the 27 — are marvellous. I like to conduct several of them. Then Shchedrin is a very talented composer, so is Eshpai and Weinberg, who has written several good symphonies. They make use of all modern means at their disposal — but they always maintain contact with musical ideas'.

He has very much enjoyed the experience of conducting the LPO but he found some difficulty in describing the differences between British and Russian orchestras. 'I think that the type of repertory leaves its mark on the qualities of an orchestra. Perhaps ours are more emotionally involved in what they play, maybe they achieve a greater range of sound as well, but the LPO have been magnificent in the First and Third Rachmaninov symphonies —and in Tchaikovsky's Manfred too. They have really caught the feeling and mood of these works. I also appreciate the English audiences: they always know why they have come to a concert. They know their music, and are consequently more critical than some others.'

We discussed the differences in recording technique between the two countries. 'In Russia, the producer and chief engineer are usually one and the same man. They call him the sound producer. Aleksander Grosman is the best we have and I always try to work with him. On the whole, we like to record works that are in the repertory of our orchestra as this avoids long stints of rehearsal before the recording session starts. As in your country, we try as far as possible to do a work in one take and edit as little as possible — and we also like not to spend more than a day on each piece. We have done a Tchaikovsky symphony in one day, also The Rite of Spring. That means about five hours solid work but then that's the end. I have recorded both in the Moscow Conservatory and in the studio, but I much prefer the Conservatory from the point of view of acoustics, and it's fixed up permanently with recording equipment.'

Svetlanov lives in the centre of Moscow with his wife, the Bolshoi mezzo Larissa Avdeyeva, who came over for the Festival Hall performance of Alexander Nevsky. They have a son of 13 whom Svetlanov described as 'anti-musical'. Svetlanov's hobbies are football, fishing and cycling. He goes fishing wherever he can find water but admitted he had not yet tried the Thames: there had been no time on his lightning visits here. His career in Russia is not confined to Moscow as he often appears outside the capital as a guest — especially with the Moscow Philharmonic. Nor, in spite of what he said about opera, does he neglect that medium — he has given concert performances recently of Otello and Tosca, which he has recorded in a Russian version.

As a conductor he acknowledges many influences — Golovanov, Mravinsky and Stokowski among the older school — and he still feels he has much to learn, particularly through contact with some of today's conductors — he mentioned Bernstein, Karajan and Maazel. And it is perhaps with this technically brilliant and interpretatively flamboyant school that he can most easily be identified. If the Melodiya records — and his recent London concerts — are anything to go by, we may soon be hearing as much of him as of his Western counterparts.

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