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Russian chestnuts go down smoothly

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Russian Sketches," works by Mikhail Glinka, Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, David Zinman conducting (Telarc CD-80378)

This attractive collection was recorded by the Baltimore Symphony and its music director, David Zinman, between 1989 and 1994. One doubts they were recorded with an album in mind; it's more likely that Glinka's overture to "Russlan and Ludmilla," Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter Overture," Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini" and Polonaise from "Eugene Onegin," which were recorded between 1989 and 1991, were originally designed as filler material for a projected Baltimore Symphony set of the Tchaikovsky symphonies that Telarc canceled -- only the Fourth was recorded and issued.

Someone in either Telarc or the orchestra's offices must have thought it a shame to waste this material and suggested Ippolitov-Ivanov's "Caucasian Sketches," which was recorded in 1994, to fill out a CD devoted to Russian chestnuts.

These fine performances can be recommended to listeners who do not already have them. Glinka's "Russlan and Ludmilla" overture races with high spirits. Zinman and the orchestra skillfully evoke the oriental atmosphere of the Ippolitov-Ivanov "Sketches." The Rimsky-Korsakov is played with enough color and brilliance to place it among the best recorded versions. Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini" -- while not approaching the fierce drama captured by the famous Leopold Stokowski-New York Philharmonic version -- is lyrically persuasive, and the same composer's "Onegin" Polonaise struts energetically.

A word of warning, however: In their first few years recording the Baltimore Symphony, Telarc's engineers experienced difficulty in taming the lively acoustics of Meyerhoff Hall. The recorded DTC sound in the Glinka and the Tchaikovsky Polonaise is paper-thin compared to that accorded the other pieces.

Dmitri Shostakovich, Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 for Cello and Orchestra, performed by Mischa Maisky and the London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting (Deutsche Grammophon 445 821-2).

Shostakovich's two cello concertos, which were written for Mstislav Rostropovich, rank among the greatest for the instrument. The First Concerto (1959), the more frequently performed of the pieces, is wittier, pithier and more brilliant. But the Second Concerto (1966) may be the better piece. It is lyrical and searching, and while its melancholy is occasionally interrupted by smiles, they only hint at even deeper sorrows than those on the music's surface. The whispering, clockwork coda of the final movement is one of the most affecting moments in the cello literature.

Before Rostropovich turned primarily to conducting, he owned these pieces. It scarcely surprises, therefore, that some of his best pupils -- notably Mikhail Khomitser, Natalia Gutman and, now, Mischa Maisky -- have made some of the finest recordings since his pioneering versions. Maisky is awesomely precise and urgent in the concertos' bravura passages and thoughtful and sensitive in slow movements. Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony give him sympathetic, disciplined accompaniments.

HEAR THE MUSIC

To hear excerpts from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's "Russian Sketches," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.

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