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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Capriccio Espagnol, op. 34 (1887) [15:51]
Russian Easter Festival Overture, op. 36 (1888) [15:03]
Scheherazade, op. 35 (1888) [43:57]
Elise Båtnes (violin)
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 2019, Oslo Concert Hall

Rimsky’s three orchestral masterpieces op. 34, 35 and 36, all composed in an intense creative burst in the late 1880s, fit together very well on a single CD, so it’s surprising how rarely they have been issued as a trio.  Apart from the very well regarded Ormandy performances (review ~ review), I can’t recall off the top of my head any other Scheherazade on my shelves that comes with both the Capriccio Espagnol and the Russian Easter festival overture on a single stand-alone disc.  

That undoubted convenience is not, though, the only reason to consider this new release.  The quality of the sound engineering also marks it out.  While Rimsky’s score is rightly praised for the quality of its orchestration, in many recordings - and not just the older ones – its finer details are sometimes lost in the ebb and flow of its frequent heady moments.  That’s not the case here, however.  Over the years, the sonic possibilities inherent in Rimsky’s expert orchestral mix of bold primary colours and more subtly mixed hues have tempted some recording engineers to gild the lily.  There is, though, no hint of any artificial highlighting on this occasion – just clear, natural sound.  While, twenty years ago, the poor acoustics of the Oslo Concert Hall notoriously provoked Mariss Jansons’ resignation as music director of the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra, this disc’s transparent recording overcomes any deficiencies to deliver an agreeably warm yet pin-sharp account.

As music director of that very same Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra from 2013 until earlier this year, Vasily Petrenko presumably knows how to get the best from it and his accounts of all three works will no doubt appeal to many listeners.  The most successful is, I think, Scheherazade, a relatively conventional performance which is, however, skilfully constructed and, in particular, well balanced.  In the opening movement, Petrenko’s tempi and the incisive Oslo strings successfully reinforce a mental image of Sinbad’s ship coursing propulsively through the waves of the Indian Ocean – something that, as I noted just a few months ago, not every performance gets right (review).  The conductor’s finely-honed control of dynamics creates a more interestingly delineated movement overall, while still missing nothing at its great climax (8:00). 

The opportunities offered – if, sometimes, very briefly – to soloists in the second movement are taken with relish.  The bassoon (00:38), oboe (1:21), clarinet (4:51) and flute (10:19) all deliver their musical lines with distinct individual personality and most attractively.  The same applies throughout the whole performance, by the way, to the OPO’s concertmaster Elise Båtnes.  In personifying Scheherazade herself, her often delicately filigree, even rather small, sound might have been easily overwhelmed.  As it is, however, her own skill, coupled with that of Petrenko and the Lawo engineers, renders it entirely to scale and expertly positioned within its orchestral setting.  A succession of delightful moments, from the powerful entry of the brass at 3:38 to a particularly beautiful and controlled account of the movement’s final resolution (9:50 onwards), marks a performance of The tale of the Kalendar prince that’s conceived and delivered far less episodically than many others.

The opening of the third movement brings something of a surprise.  The music’s theme (Rimsky stepped back from any idea that it might be considered its subject) is supposedly young love but this is not one of those lush accounts that swoon romantically away for ten minutes or so, just a step or two away in spirit from Mantovani’s famously “cascading” strings.  A significantly more propulsive and less dreamy opening than usual is followed by an emotionally cool exposition and an ending that’s delivered notably briskly.  The succeeding final movement doesn’t dawdle either, with the recollected themes from earlier episodes delivered in forthright, rather than fondly reminisced, fashion.  After a vivacious depiction of the festival at Baghdad, that of the ship under full sail at sea and its subsequent shipwreck is grandly achieved, leading to another beautifully imagined, finely controlled and intensely lyrical resolution.

I am sorry to say, however, that I am not so taken with either of the other performances on this disc.  The Capriccio Espagnol once again benefits from exquisitely engineered sound, so that, for instance, the solo violin in the Scena e canto gitano emerges magically from the orchestra rather than seeming as if it’s been imposed on top of it.  Petrenko’s overall conception is, though, somewhat dreamy and lacking in forthright propulsion at places – most notably in the variazioni - where a little more in the way of visceral excitement wouldn’t have come amiss.  I initially feared too for the final fandango that opens here in a rather controlled, buttoned-up manner.  Even though, thankfully, the music is eventually given its head some at 1:57 and then again at 2:25, that felt just a little too late.

The fine balance between solo violin and orchestra is once more apparent in the Russian Easter festival overture, where the opportunities offered more briefly to other soloists – whether flute, clarinet, cello or trombone – are also exploited to best effect.  Nevertheless, this is ultimately, I think, a performance that doesn’t live up to expectations.  Not only is the brisk opening somewhat at odds with the supposedly expectant atmosphere of an Orthodox church congregation, but the rather sparing application of much in the way of orchestral “glitter” at 6:45 is a sad disappointment.   Just as in Capriccio Espagnol, with two or three minutes to go there’s a welcome injection of oomph that’s ramped up even more at the very conclusion – but, as before, I’d really lost much in the way of interest by then.

What we have here, then, is a fine modern recording of Scheherazade – though not one that’s sufficiently outstanding to automatically displace the many other much-lauded accounts in the catalogue.  While other listeners may warm more than I do to the somewhat low-key accounts of op. 34 and op. 36, I fear that they don’t add anything sufficiently remarkable to this new release to make it stand out in a rather crowded field.

Rob Maynard

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