This is a riveting BBC concert tape with unusual political overtones. Soviet tanks had rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush the liberal Dubcek regime in the summer of 1968, brutally ending the "Prague spring" that began in January. That same week Svetlanov brought the USSR State Symphony Orchestra on tour to the UK. There were protesters outside Usher Hall in Edinburgh; the summer festival was a prime venue for visiting artists. In this volatile mix Svetlanov found inspiration for a powerful, swaggering (perhaps defiant) performance of the main work here, Tchaikovsky's Sym. #3 "Polish." It was recorded in good FM streo with a close-up perspective, adding even more urgency to a reading that is more fervent than any I've heard from Abbado, Bernstein, Karajan, Dorati, Markevitch, Muti, Beecham, and other Western exponents (I've been on a long search). It outdoes Yuri Temirkanov's RCA account, too, my only other exposure to a Russian interpreter.
In general Svetlanov was a bold, propulsive conductor, prone to overlook niceties in a score -- I've always thought of him as an exemplary "people's artist" in the Soviet machinery -- and the "Polish" benefits from his boldness, because on the surface the first three movements tend to blend into a balletic smoothness and sameness that doesn't hold one's attention. Svetlanov speeds up the tempo to move the line along, and he emphasizes inner voices and accents beyond the usual. The result is invigorating, although I can't side with British commentators on this famous concert who say that the conductor is on fire or that the reading is scorching. The "Polish" can't be entirely transformed from the gentle creature it mostly is. At least its breast is heaving in Svetlannov's ultra-expressive account.
At 73 min., the CD is generously filled out with Glinka's little-heard "Symphony on Two Russian Themes" and Prokofiev's too-often-heard Sym. #1. Both are given strong, energetic performances, in the spirit of the entire concert. All in all, this is one of BBC Legends most valuable Soviet-era releases, of which there are many.