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A GREAT, UNKNOWN CONDUCTOR

12:00 AM, Oct 7, 1996 • By JAY NORDLINGER
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When Russia was swallowed in communism, musical life was shackled to the state. Some got out, like Sergei Rachmaninoff. Some stayed and suffered, like Dmitri Shostakovich. Some chose to become functionaries of the regime, like Dmitri Kabalevsky (also a composer). But most were neither dissidents nor lackeys, neither collaborators nor saints. Instead, they did what was necessary to fulfill their musical destinies in the trying circumstances of a police state. And in this group were some of the titans of the age, among them the conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky.


Who? The question is pardonable, for Mravinsky is probably the least known of the great conductors. His life had the misfortune to coincide almost exactly with that of the Soviet Union: He was born in 1908; he died in 1988. For 50 of those years, he directed the Leningrad Philharmonic, in the longest association of conductor and orchestra in history. (Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra are in second place, at 42 years.) Mravinsky traveled little in the West, and his recordings were few and obscure. How can we be certain of his greatness?


The answer is to be found in two revelatory box sets of Mravinsky's work, released by BMG Classics. BMG won the distribution rights to the archives of Melodiya, the old Soviet recording agency (still owned by the Russian government) rumored to house the largest collection of classical tapes in the world. The first set of ten discs appeared last year; the second set, also of ten discs, has just become available. These recordings run the gamut from Mozart to Glazunov, from Beethoven to Hindemith. They were made both live and in the studio, from the late 1940s to the early 1980s. And they document the mastery of a musician who might have been forgotten altogether.


The second set begins with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, a crucial test for any conductor and an excellent introduction to Mravinsky's approach. The Fifth under his baton is brisk, no-nonsense, and tightly controlled. It is Toscanini-like in its fidelity to the score, but expansive enough to allow the music to breathe. Mravinsky gives us slashing, unadorned Beethoven, completely without pretension. Here, as always, he makes no attempt to dress the music up; he simply lets it speak.


It is like fresh air, this performance, as though the conductor has scraped the barnacles off the hull of an abused masterpiece, so that we can perceive it once again. Mravinsky refuses to "interpret"; he transmits the music as it emerged from the composer's pen.


Equally impressive is his account of the Beethoven Seventh, described by Wagner as "the apotheosis of the dance." And in Mravinsky's hands, it is. It is beautiful in pacing, unfailing in rhythm. It is small and Mozartean in spots, grand and Brucknerian in others -- like Beethoven, in other words. The last movement is a whirling dervish, not always cleanly articulated, but this performance is as convincing as any recorded.


Two symphonies of Brahms are offered -- the Third and the Fourth -- and in them, Mravinsky is similarly faithful to the composer's intentions. Like all able conductors, he was a chameleon -- a chameleon that clung to the bedrock principles undergirding all of music. The first movement of the Third is dark and impassioned, the woodwinds warm. Nothing is inappropriate; nothing is gratuitously spent. The second movement is well-timed, intelligent, relentless. Mravinsky knows the structure of the piece and holds back, mindful not to arrive too early. The third movement is plaintively sung, and the last a model of Romanticism tempered by Classicism, or Classicism unlocked by Romanticism -- the synthesis of Brahms himself.


Of the Fourth, there are several immortal recordings -- Wilhelm Furtwangler's, Bruno Walter's, Otto Klemperer's -- and Mravinsky's must be placed among them. The playing is at times imprecise, but one forgives this, particularly in a live performance. Never does Mravinsky go for the showy gesture; never does he succumb to affectation. (He would have enjoyed knowing a kindred spirit, Maria Callas, who once upbraided a student for a histrionic note. "But Madame," said the student, "it is a cry of despair" "It is not a cry of despair," said Callas; "it is a B-flat.") The slow movement is shockingly understated, almost like chamber music. It whispers, implores, and sighs. And a climax is a climax, because Mravinsky has not given away the store.