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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844–1908)
Works for Orchestra
Overture to ‘The Maid of Pskov’ (1868) [6:52];
Legend (Conte féerique), Op. 29 (1879-80) [16:44];
Neapolitan Song, Op. 63 (1880) [3:21];
Overture to ‘The Tsar’s Bride’ (1899) [6:17];
Sinfonietta on Russian Themes, Op. 31 (1880 – 84) [24:31];
Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34 (1887) [16:00]
BBC Philharmonic/Vassily Sinaisky
rec. Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 16 December 2005 (Capriccio, Sinfonietta); 18 October 2006 (other works)
CHANDOS CHAN 10424 [74:32]


Apart from the ever-popular Capriccio espagnol, the music on this disc is rarely recorded and rarely heard. In truth this statement applies to a lot Rimsky-Korsakov, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the music is bad, It seems that Capriccio, Scheherazade and Russian Easter Festival Overture, which incidentally have consecutive opus numbers, have totally over-shadowed his other works. The operas are performed in Russia – some of them at least – but are seldom seen in the West; recordings are few and far between. I had a box with four of them for review a couple of years ago but after that – nothing. The two, represented here by their overtures, were written more than thirty years apart. The Maid of Pskov was his first work in the genre while The Tsar’s Bride was the ninth of fifteen in total. Hearing them now more or less together one has no feeling of the early one being a prentice work and the later a mature master. This is natural perhaps since both deal with Russia’s old history, more precisely with Ivan the Terrible and with librettos by the same writer, Lev Mey. What is at once evident when hearing The Maid of Pskov is the superb orchestration. R-K had learnt his trade thoroughly. All through this programme there is ample proof of his superior ear for colour and his inventive juxtaposition of solo instruments with full orchestra. Both overtures are alive with contrasts and are fine acquaintances without being especially memorable.

That also goes for the Legend, which is in five movements played attacca. The first half of the work felt more like a preamble, a warming up. The last movement took some time to catch this listener’s interest. The Neapolitan Song, is a different matter, being nothing other than a charming, brilliantly coloured, partly boisterous arrangement of Denza’s song Funiculì, funicula, written to celebrate the installation of the first funicular railway up Vesuvius.

The longest work on the disc, the Sinfonietta on Russian Themes, started life as a four-movement string quartet, written 1878-79. Neither the performers nor the composer liked it so he rewrote it for orchestra, dropping the last movement and also the descriptive titles. The first movement, Allegretto pastorale (originally ‘In the field’), is warm, light-hearted and pastoral or at least rural. The second, Adagio (‘At the devichnik’ which is an eve-of-wedding girls’ party), has a beautiful theme, presented by the French horn. Later there is some skilful contrapuntal writing and the whole movement is nicely varied. The Scherzo-Finale, marked vivo (‘In the khorovod’, which is a round dance) is a kind of whirling perpetuum mobile – fresh, invigorating music!

Like Glinka before him, Rimsky-Korsakov was also attracted by Spain. ‘The Spanish themes, of dance character, furnished me with rich material for employing colourful orchestral effects’ he wrote. Both musicians and audiences liked what they heard. My first recording of Capriccio espagnol was with the other Manchester orchestra, the Hallé, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli on a 7 inch 33rpm record. This meant that I had to get up and turn it over in the middle of the work. My memories of Sir John’s reading are that he strived for a leaner sound and a slightly lighter touch than Vassily Sinaisky. It may be that the more compressed dynamics and the mono recording in combination with my far from sophisticated listening equipment conveyed this impression. Initially I found the Alborada too heavily accented and the second movement Variazione a bit dragging At the same time I admired the concentration and intensity of the playing. The return of the Alborada actually felt lighter, but returning to the opening showed that they were very much alike so I believe I had already got accustomed to Sinaisky’s reading. The rest of the work was sheer joy: the ‘gypsy’ movement earthbound and atmospheric with excellent instrumental solos and the Fandango a knock-out, followed by a licentiously furious coda. Bravo!

As principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Sinaisky obviously has superb rapport with the musicians. The playing is uniformly good while the spacious recording produces a meaty sound that gives full due to the fortissimos and lets us hear all the delicacies of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral colours. John Warrack contributes insightful liner notes, where he also quotes the composer, who was irritated by critics and public who thought that Capriccio espagnol was magnificently orchestrated. It was, R-K stated, a brilliant composition where the colours and use of solo instruments were the essence of the work, not the clothing. I agree.

Not everything here is top-drawer music perhaps. On the other hand it is always interesting and fascinating to investigate the lesser-known works of great composers and possibly find new friends for life. Inquisitive readers might make discoveries here.

Göran Forsling 





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