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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
LAWO CLASSICS LWC1198 [74:57]

I will begin my review of this CD by stating my appreciation of the utterly splendid sound field that was captured by the recording engineers. There is a sense of immediacy with enough space around the orchestra to really believe that I am sitting inside the Oslo Concert Hall. A top notch effort for certain.

I have spent many years listening to the orchestral and operatic works of Rimsky-Korsakov. They are among my favorites to relax and wallow in when I need a musical pick me up after a long day. I grew up with Ernest Ansermet’s pioneering recordings that were made in Geneva and issued on LPs for Decca (or London records as we knew them on this side of the Atlantic.) I still have most of Ansermet’s orchestral albums but on CD rather than LP now. With regards to Scheherazade I see on my shelves that I also own versions by Reiner, Ormandy, Bernstein, Barenboim, Dutoit, Gergiev, and another one by Alexander Titov which must have been given to me because I don’t know why I might have purchased it. Now comes along this newcomer in excellent sound but how will it measure up to the greats of the past?

This performance of Capriccio Espagnol by Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic has a great deal of polish in its playing. There is a nice sense of sweeping line to the Variazoni in spite of its leisurely pace. For the Canto Gitano section Petrenko conjures a delicacy and lightness which is refreshing; there is absolutely no feeling of heavy-handedness which has crept into some other versions. In this section the really fine acoustic contributes to that feeling of lightness. Only in the concluding Fandango did I feel that he took off with supersonic speed which seemed as if the orchestra only barely kept up to his beat. Far better is Eugene Ormandy’s approach on his 1959 version with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Ormandy also speeds up but with a magnificent sense of flight and propulsion rather than just speed.

The Russian Easter Festival Overture is not a particular favorite of mine as I think Rimksy-Korsakov’s inspiration was less consistent in this work. I can report that Petrenko gives a thoroughly professional account of the piece with some thrilling brass fanfares and the pealing of the bells is really quite stirring.

Scheherazade opens with the lovingly caressed solo violin phrases of Elise Båtnes; again she sounds wonderful in this well-managed acoustic. Petrenko and his forces offer a glorious sense of majestic sweeping to the sea music of the first movement. In the Tale of the Kalendar Prince movement Petrenko judges the contrasts of the different permutations of the main theme quite nicely and I noted some thrilling back and forth dialogue between the trumpets and the trombones. In the Tale of the Young Prince and the Young Princess there is an irresistible chanting feel to the woodwinds as if they were the Prince’s private musicians playing for him in his palace. In the final Festival in Baghdad movement again I think Petrenko begins a mite too briskly for my taste which leaves him and the orchestra nowhere to evolve to; however, the musicians really hold up their end with aplomb. Full marks though to Petrenko for the wonderful grandiosity for the return of the sea motif at the climax of the work. You can almost feel the sea spray hit you in the face here.

My go-to recordings will always be Ormandy’s unforgettable versions for CBS/Sony, Scheherazade (1966) and Capriccio Espagnol (1959). Their sound quality is very dated as one might suspect, the brass in particular sounds very aggressive by today’s standards. I have always felt that Ormandy brought out the very best in these works. For Capriccio Espagnol, particularly the Philadelphia players sound as if their very lives depended on their playing; no doubt in those days they did. As to the current recording this is a well performed, modern reading in stunning sound; those wanting to add these works to their library should not hesitate. The greats of the past however, have no fear of being knocked off their pedestals for the time being.

Mike Parr
 
Previous review: Rob Maynard



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