New York For years, they gathered cobwebs in a building on the outskirts of Moscow thousands of hours of classical music recordings and video footage of artists such as cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and dancer Rudolf Nureyev.
Now, after years of legal and technical wrangling, the performances recorded over nearly seven decades by the Soviet Ministry of Radio and Television are being released. They number more than 400,000 enough to fill 12,000 compact discs.
Pipeline Music, a Los Angeles-based company, holds worldwide distribution rights to the recordings, and already has released more than 100 albums in recent years in South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. This spring, 20 more are being released in the United States.
"You're awestruck. It's almost too overwhelming floor-to-ceiling of tapes, three floors," said Pipeline president, Denny Diante, a producer and former executive at MCA and Columbia records. He estimated the archives could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Classical music experts said the archive provided a valuable record of 20th century Soviet musical artistry.
"It's not as significant as it was 20 years ago, but I think anything that gives a more rounded picture behind the Iron Curtain is of enormous importance," said James Jolly, editor of Gramophone magazine.
Sedgewick Clark, editor of Musical America Directory and a free-lance record producer, said: "Russia has kept up a style of performance that has basically ossified in the early 20th century, and this makes for exciting content because it doesn't have an international quality."
"A lot of these recordings may have that wonderful, Russian emotional style that when it's good, it can tear your guts out," he said.
Among the recordings: Violinist David Oistrakh performs a Prokofiev violin concerto in June 1953. Rostropovich performs a Dmitri Shostakovich cello concerto in November 1967. Shostakovich plays one of his own piano concertos, accompanied by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in 1956. American Paul Robeson sings Russian and other songs in 1949 in Moscow.
Folks singer Pete Seeger performs "Freight Train" in Moscow in 1965. Pianist Van Cliburn plays in the first Tchaikovsky competition in 1958. Rare video footage shows Nureyev dancing.
Some of the recorded artists had fallen out of favor with Soviet authorities and were banned; their recordings were preserved by archives staff who hid them in the vaults.
The recordings were unearthed more than a decade ago, when the Soviet Union collapsed, but squabbling between the Russian government and private companies have left them gathering yet more dust, uncataloged and mostly inaccessible.
Los Angeles-based promoter Tristan Del said he had stumbled on the archives in the late 1980s.
"My initial impression was almost like walking into a room with DaVinci, Michelangelo, and seeing it for the first time, and gasping for air legendary composers performing their own works," Del said.
He and his company USSU Arts Group signed a seven-year contract in 1992 with Ostankino, the successor to the Soviet ministry, acquiring exclusive rights to produce and market recordings from the archives.
But legal questions arose over which post-Soviet entity had the rights to sign a contract with Del. Government officials accused him of virtually stealing the archive, and the Russian press excoriated him. Del announced that a Russian business partner had tried to extract a bribe. The two sides ended up in a multimillion-dollar libel lawsuit. In 1996, President Boris Yeltsin decreed the archive a national treasure.
Further complicating matters were copyright questions: Copyrights in the Soviet Union were the property of the state, but with a Western company producing and marketing the recordings in post-Soviet Russia, some artists began demanding royalties.
Del's project did succeed in releasing a few dozen albums in Britain on the Revelation label, owned by the British company TelStar, beginning in 1996. TelStar ended up suing Del after his access to the archives was blocked.
"Anything that possibly could go wrong, did go wrong," Del said.
In the Pipeline
Ultimately, Pipeline acquired the rights to the archive from USSU in a 1999 stock deal, according to Diante.
With the help of Stas Namin, a well-connected Russian music producer, Pipeline renegotiated the contract and secured the Russian government's trust. The company raised some $4 million from investors, Diante said, to buy production equipment for the new building outside of Moscow that has housed the archives since 1998. Copyrights are being honored, Diante said.