Yevgeny Mravinsky

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This is a recorded live concert by Yevgeny Mravinsky and his Leningrad Philharmonic, taped in East Berlin at Deutsche Staatsoper on 25 May 1956 while they were on tour in East Germany. Mravinsky was a 100% musician down to the last hair on his body. His live performances are famous in its commitment to the music and all the risks involved in accomplishing this feat. This East German radio broadcast has never been published before.

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YEVGENY MRAVINSKY conducts Mozart, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky

1-4. Mozart: Symphony No. 33 in B-flat Major, KV. 319 [21:57]
I. Allegro assai [07:15]
II. Andante moderato [05:30]
III. Menuetto – Trio [02:54]
IV. Allegro assai [06:18]

5-8. Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 99 [34:17]
I. Nocturne [11:01]
II. Scherzo [06:15]
III. Passacaglia [12:30]
IV. Burlesque [04:59]

9. Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 [21:58]

Leningrad Philharmonic
David Oistrakh ∙ violin [5-8]
Yevgeny Mravinsky ∙ conductor

Recorded ∙ 25 May 1956 ∙ East Berlin ∙ Deutsche Staatsoper ∙ Rundfunk der DDR ∙ Live Recording

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Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Mravinsky was born on 4 May 1903 in Saint Petersburg. His forebears were unusually strong-willed: one aunt, the soprano Evgeniya Mravina, a soloist at the Maryinsky Theatre and much admired by Tchaikovsky for her interpretation of Tatyana in his opera Eugene Onegin, had rejected the advances of the Tsar; and another aunt, Alexandra Kollontai, was the first woman to act as a fully-fledged Russian ambassador. When Evgeny was six years old he began taking piano lessons and made his first visit to the Maryinsky Theatre, to see Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty, which had received its first performance there in 1890. While a pupil at school he participated in theatrical productions and when he was at university, studying biology, he worked as an extra at the Maryinsky Theatre. By now Mravinsky’s interest in music was serious and he began to prepare himself to enter the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. However, following the Revolution of 1917, as a result of which he and his mother had been evicted from their home by the Red Guard after the death of his father, restrictions had been placed on former members of the aristocracy studying: consequently his aunt Alexandra wrote directly to Alexander Glazunov, asking the distinguished composer to take on Evgeny as a composition pupil. He also worked during this period as a rehearsal pianist for the Leningrad Ballet School and for the Leningrad Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, the post-revolutionary name for the Maryinsky Theatre. He first studied biology at the University in Leningrad, before going to the Leningrad Conservatory to study music. He served as a ballet repetiteur from 1923 to 1931. On the strength of several unusually mature works, Mravinsky entered the composition department of the Leningrad Conservatory, graduating as a member of Vladimir Scherbachov’s composition class in 1930, the year in which he first conducted at the Conservatory. He had been drawn to the possibility of conducting some years earlier, after hearing a performance of Wagner’s Siegfried conducted by Emil Cooper, and had already received instruction from Nikolai Malko who was chief conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra until 1929. Mravinsky continued at the Conservatory as a student in Alexander Gauk’s conducting class, from which he graduated in 1931. He was immediately taken on as an assistant conductor with the Leningrad Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre and was promoted to the position of conductor with the company shortly afterwards in 1932, carrying on in this role until 1938 and conducting predominantly ballet. In addition he regularly conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra from 1934, having first appeared with the orchestra in 1931.

Mravinsky rose to national prominence in 1937, when he conducted the first performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. Following the composer’s official condemnation by the state in 1936, the success or failure of this première would be significant, given also that Stalin’s purges were by now gaining momentum. Mravinsky delivered a powerful and successful account of the new work, which subsequently became a core item in his repertoire. Thirty years later he recalled this breakthrough in his career: ‘I still wonder just how I dared to take up such a complicated thing without a moment’s hesitation. If it happened now I would certainly rack my brains, making lots of second guesses and I’m not sure I would take it up…I had my whole reputation at stake and, even more importantly, also that of a new composition no one had ever heard in public before…My only excuse was my young age, and that I was unaware of the problems that awaited me down the road, and the responsibility I was taking…’ This success also led to a close working relationship with Dmitri Shostakovich: Mravinsky was to conduct the first performances of several more of his symphonies. The next critical stage in his career was his participation in the first All-Union Conductors’ Competition, which was held in Moscow in 1938.

In 1938 Mravinsky was appointed artistic director of the prestigious Leningrad Philharmonic at the age of 35. Just three years later Germany tore up the Molotov–Ribbentrop non-aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. This caused the Leningrad Philharmonic and Mravinsky to be evacuated to Novosibirsk in Siberia. Great relationships between conductors and orchestras are forged by long and intensive periods working together, and during those dark years in Siberia Mravinsky and his orchestra played in 538 concerts attended by more than 400,000 people, and in addition broadcast more than 200 radio concerts. When they returned to Leningrad in 1944 a very special alchemy had formed between the orchestra and its music director. In 1946 Mravinsky led them on their first-ever overseas tour, 1947 saw them give the first performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony in Leningrad, and in 1953 they premiered Shostakovich’s controversial Tenth Symphony.

Legend has it that at the first performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, during the applause immediately after the performance, Mravinsky took the score in his hand and waved it above his head. Mravinsky gave world premieres of six symphonies by Shostakovich: numbers 5, 6, 8 (which Shostakovich dedicated to Mravinsky), 9, 10 and finally 12 in 1961. His refusal to conduct the premiere of Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony in 1962 caused a permanent rupture in their friendship. It is a vocal symphony and the texts used did not have the approval of the Russian authorities and the texts were said to be anti Semitic and did not take into account the previous sufferings of the Russian people.

He premiered Sergei Prokofiev’s excellent Symphony no 6 in E flat minor in Leningrad the year of its composition, 1947, a very difficult work to mount but no music presented any problem to Mravinsky. He was a complete musician and not limited in any way. There are many well revered conductors who are very limited in their abilities. Mravinsky made commercial studio recordings from 1938 to 1961. Disliking the recording process, Mravinsky ceased to make studio recordings after 1961, and up to his death his publicly-available recordings were relatively few. Given this fact and his limited international appearances, it is perhaps doubly extraordinary that his international fame was so extensive: he was regarded throughout the last decades of his life as a master with a reputation of the highest order. His final recording was from an April 1984 live performance of Shostakovich’s magnificent Symphony No. 12.

Mravinsky first went on tour abroad in 1946, including performances in Finland and in Czechoslovakia at the Prague Spring Festival. Later tours with the orchestra included a June 1956 itinerary to West Germany, East Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Their only tour of Great Britain was in September 1960 to the Edinburgh Festival and the Royal Festival Hall, London. Their first tour to Japan was in May 1973. Their last foreign tour was in 1984, to West Germany. His last concert was on 6 March 1987 performing Schubert, Symphony No. 8, and Brahms, Symphony No. 4.

Recordings reveal Mravinsky to have an extraordinary technical control over the orchestra, especially over dynamics. He was also a very exciting conductor, sometimes changing tempo in order to heighten the musical effect for which he was striving, often making prominent use of brass instrumentation. From all reports, Mravinsky was a tyrant in the Fritz Reiner-George Szell mold. He was a fanatic for meticulous preparation, as demanding of others as he was of himself. One hour before rehearsal was to begin, the orchestra began to tune up; 30 minutes later they sat with instruments tuned, awaiting the appearance of their conductor. As soon as Mravinsky was seen entering the building, there were whispers of “Fozduch!”–Russian for “Take cover–enemy approaching.” Mravinsky was nothing if not a passionate orchestral pedagogue. Even when preparing a work he had conducted countless times, such as Brahms’ Second Symphony, he still scheduled eight rehearsals so as to refine the interpretation even further. Yet he had a phobia about public performance and often would assign concerts he had prepared to his assistant conductors.

Yevgeny Mravinsky died in Leningrad on 19 January 1988, aged 84.

Notes by Michael Waiblinger, © 2014

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Article number: MC 5000
UPC barcode: 791154054185
Recording dates: 1956
Release date: March 2015
Total timing: 78:13

Producer and Audio Restoration: Lynn Ludwig
Booklet Notes: Michael Waiblinger
Design: Alessia Issara
Photographs: Erich Höhne and Erich Pohl, Dresden 1956
With special thanks to Dr. Reinhard Niemann
From the Original Masters ∙ © 2015 Meloclassic