Saturday, 22 November 2014

Review: Great Conductors of the 20th Century - Nikolai Golovanov - 2 CDs, EMI

Nikolai Golovanov
(1891 – 1953)

Great Conductors of the 20th Century:
Glazunov, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Liszt

Let’s go completely overboard, shall we?

Admittedly, it’s pretty difficult not to lose one’s head about Golovanov’s explosive artistry – especially if one happens to be a Lisztian. I understand in 1952-53 he recorded all twelve symphonic poems from the Weimar years, but the five included here are more or less the only ones available today. I may safely say that this is a crime against music. I had never ever even heard of Nikolai Golovanov before listening to these recordings, but now I have no hesitation to rank him among the finest Lisztians on record, and a fellow well worth checking out in any other repertoire as well. Since I have never much cared about Mendelssohn’s music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, let alone about Glazunov’s workmanlike yet dull symphonies, this review will be concerned solely with Liszt’s symphonic poems, by the far the most compelling discovery on record I have made for quite some time.

(In passing it might be remarked that Tchaikovsky’s overture included here is a tremendous travesty since its finale was actually substituted with music by Glinka. This, of course, had nothing to do with Golovanov, but everything to do with the Communist morons who ruled the Soviet Union at the time and for whom the Tsarist associations of Tchaikovsky’s original finale were completely unacceptable. As a kind of historical curiosity, an incorruptible witness of vastly corrupt times, the overture makes for a fascinating listening. Golovanov’s interpretation is, naturally, impressive, to say the least. By the way, the CDs come with excellent liner notes which offer an extensive biographical essay and make a very strong case that stitching Tchaikovsky and Glinka must have been the least of Golovanov’s problems.)

It is notoriously well-known that Liszt has suffered for quite a few generations – and continues to suffer indeed – a most unfortunate double negative fate, namely that most of his music is never played, his orchestral music at any rate, and when it is, the performances usually range from decent to dismal. How astonishing that back in the early 1950s – and in the Soviet Union at that! – there was a man who was so dedicated to Liszt and, moreover, who could interpret his music with all but unprecedented force.

Golovanov’s Liszt has been an amazing revelation. His approach to the symphonic poems is completely original and, so far as I know, without analogue on record. My only qualm is his rushing the main theme in Héroïde funèbre; it just doesn’t suit a funeral march at all. That said, Golovanov’s rendition has nothing to do with Masur’s abomination which is way faster and more ridiculous. Furthermore, the Russian conductor treats the second subject, one of Liszt’s most beautiful themes, and especially the brooding finale, definitely one of Liszt’s creepiest and most haunting moments, in a truly admirable manner.

Speaking of breakneck tempi, they are quite typical for Golovanov and in this respect his Mazeppa must be heard to be believed. Having heard numerous times Karajan’s superb recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker (made for DG in 1961), I didn’t expect ever to hear any other which would even remotely match his combination of power and musicality. Yet Golovanov does. His Mazeppa could not possibly have been more different than Karajan’s. It is way faster, for one thing; consider the timings: they are almost identical actually – but Golovanov takes the repeat in the finale and Karajan doesn't. But fast tempi, of course, don’t make a great interpretation. Indeed, they often ruin it, and Mazeppa is a fine example of that. In the hands of Herman Scherchen such furious tempi make the poem sound like a piece of pure orchestral junk; it sounds “vulgar, shallow and bombastic”, as so often has been described by Liszt-bashers or misguided Lisztians. The unbelievable thing about Golovanov is that he combines great speed with impeccable musicianship. There is absolutely nothing “vulgar, shallow and bombastic” in his recording. Quite on the contrary: there is Romantic grandeur that fully matches the madness of Victor Hugo’s eponymous poem (quoted in the score by way of preface). In short, outstanding and unforgettable recording that bears one listening after another: a never-ending source of fascination.

The other three symphonic poems are every bit as spectacular. Golovanov's incandescent Prometheus makes Solti’s excellent recording (DECCA, 1977) sound uncommonly dull. The liveliness and charm, the lilting rhythm of Festklänge put to shame the fine performances of Arpad Joo and Bernard Haitink. Orpheus makes the legendary Beecham sound exaggerated and mannered. When he wants, Golovanov can, and does, slow down, creating some of the most gorgeous sound ever achieved in these works.

Speaking of sound, I pity with all my heart those who “can't get past the sound”, as another reviewer has charmingly put it. Fellas, you don’t know what you’re missing! By modern standards the sound is pretty poor, of course, and if one suffers from that horrible disease called audophilism, he is likely to find it insufferable. Yes, the dynamic range is rather limited, the balance between the instruments is far from perfect and, worst of all, the brass is almost always dismally blaring. For my part, however, I can think of very few instances where inferior sound is so completely obliterated by outstanding interpretation. Frankly, listening to Golovanov's Liszt, I couldn’t care less about utterly mundane stuff like sound quality. As a matter of fact, the sound is not so bad; it is a fine vintage mono from the early 1950s, far removed from the truly unbearable orchestral stuff from the dawn of the electrical recordings (late 1920s – early 1930s); the strings, for the most part, are particularly well recorded, with deep sonority that one doesn’t always find in much more modern recordings. If you are not addicted to digital wonders and have some experience with mono sound, your ears are not likely to suffer much, if at all. As for the orchestral playing, it does lapse into sloppiness occasionally, but on the whole it is remarkably fine, especially considering Golovanov's usual treatment of “allegro” as “prestissimo furioso”. He certainly had a fine orchestra at his disposal. If he’d only had
Western” recording opportunities!

Anyway, the mediocre sound is a very small price to pay for such originality of conception and power of execution. Looking to what I’ve written above, it is obvious that I’ve done exactly what I promised half-jokingly in the title. But I offer no apology for that: if you hear these recordings, you will know why. Highly recommended. Especially for Lisztians.

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