Unlike the Tchaikovsky ballets there is little chance that Raymonda will mean much to outsiders. Alexander Glazunov's first ballet, created as a 3-act production at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1898 and performed by companies around the world to this day, remains nonetheless one of the finest scores in the genre. In many ways, Raymonda was continuing the trend set by Tchaikovsky, upscaling ballet music to an unsuspected level of sophistication and art, and making an essential contribution to the apotheosis of Russian Imperial Ballet at the close of the 19th century.
Glazunov's score transcends the deceivingly simple plot featuring a medieval French noblewoman torn between her Crusading betrothed and the exotic digressions of a Saracen sheik, with ravishing melodiousness, evocative characterization and colorful orchestration. Capitalizing on a close cooperation with the ballet master and the theater management, Glazunov brilliantly blended epic panoramas with refined dance numbers, all tinged with his characteristic sense of introspection and melancholy.
While there are a multitude of recordings of the Tchaikovsky ballets, the full-length Raymondas on disc remain rare. Naxos released in 1996 a first-rate set with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Anissimov, while ballet lovers will also relish Viktor Fedotov with the Kirov Orchestra in a hard-to-find recording. Topping them all, however, is Evgeny Svetlanov in a 1961 traversal with Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, recently reissued by Melodiya, the Russian label that seems to be digging up again treasures from its extensive historic catalogue.
Svetlanov, who was only 33 at the time of this recording, magnifies his choreographic flair – undoubtedly sharpened by his personal experience as conductor at the Bolshoi – with an already staggeringly peremptory vision, which gives his Raymonda an unheard symphonic and dramatic dimension. With phrasing as spellbinding as here, an awareness of timbre and harmonic textures, with tempos molded by a dazzling array of rubato and the whole thing electrified by Svetlanov's characteristic demonic intensity, there is little need for the images: all the drama and theatricality is shown through the music. The successive adagios and entr'actes, marking key moments in the narrative, are transformed into grandiose canvases of sweeping lyricism, while the many short (danced) variations are sculpted with amazing vivacity.
The Bolshoi Orchestra was in terrific form, demonstrating color, flexibility and raw power (Glazunov has the brass fanfares augmented by a band), but also elegance when needed. This 1961 Raymonda has been available under various guises and I was sort of hoping that the sonics would have improved for this 2011 release. Although the liner notes mention a remastering engineer, there doesn't seem to be any difference in sound quality from the 1999 BMG set. The recording is quite acceptable for its age and origin, even if the tutti (and Glazunov provides us quite a few) sound saturated. Don't let this spoil your pleasure though: highly recommended.
Copyright © 2012, Marc Haegeman