Nicholas RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade, Op.35 [45.56]
The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (1905): excerpts
St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
rec. Great Philharmonic Hall, St Petersburg, March 2011 and October
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD 320 [58.10]
Once upon a time - this is a fairy story, after all - there was a symphonic suite called Scheherazade which formed a basic showpiece in the repertory of every international orchestra. They all recorded it and they all performed it. Nowadays it seems to have fallen on hard times, in the concert hall at least, but it still makes a very respectable showing on disc – there are 137 versions currently listed on Archiv – and it still remains a real technical tour de force for orchestras around the world. The St Petersburg players have this music saturated into the very marrow of their bones, and this performance clearly demonstrates that fact. Time and time again there are felicities of phrasing and expression which make listeners prick up their ears. Temirkanov indulges himself with rubato in every phrase that will stand it - to often beautiful effect. The players are with him to a man. At the same time he knows precisely when to get out of the way and let the individual instrumentalists have their heads. The internal balances within the orchestra are perfect with a natural instinct that can only come from intimate acquaintance with every facet of the work. The recorded balance, set slightly back in a resonant hall, is natural without any hint of spotlighting.
In fact one could have done with a marginal amount of spotlighting from the microphone on the solo violin. Its figurations sometimes disappear beneath the accompaniment in a manner which would be expected in the concert hall – where the physical presence of the soloist would lend him or her prominence – but which needs slight assistance in a purely audio production. In fact the violin soloist is stinted even more in the presentation, which nowhere discloses his or her identity: grossly unfair given this beautifully expressive performance. It is not until the end of the last movement, when audience applause suddenly erupts, that one is even aware that this is a recording of a concert performance. This makes the sheer technical perfection throughout all the more admirable.
Scheherazade is preceded by another Rimsky-Korsakov showpiece in the shape of three movements from his opera The invisible city of Kitezh. You will note the ominous phrase “three movements”. For some totally inexplicable reason the fourth movement of the orchestral suite is missing here. The result is that the music tails away unconvincingly at the end of a rousing performance of the Battle of Kershenets movement with its galloping Tartar horsemen. This then leads, with rather a short pause, straight into the opening of Scheherazade. This is even more regrettable because what we do have here is superbly well done, with the opening Paean to the Wilderness phrased with real affection and feeling. This quite transforms this already very beautiful music. What on earth happened to the last movement? There would have been plenty of room for it on the disc.
So only modified rapture, then – but nonetheless this Scheherazade is absolutely marvellous, one of the best available. If you think you have heard the score so often that it has become jaded, this is a recordingto make you think again. Temirkanov holds the symphonic form together – with the theme of the Sultan transforming into that of Sinbad – with a real appreciation of the sheer technical expertise that Rimsky-Korsakov brought to this marvellous score.
Paul Corfield Godfrey