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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade, Op. 35 (1888) [45:59]*
Tale of Tsar Saltan: Suite, Op. 57 (1903) [19:22]
The Flight of the Bumblebee from The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1903) [1:20]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
Christopher Warren-Green (violin)
rec. London, October 1985. DDD
DECCA 417301-2 [66:54]

This may not be an essential Scheherazade, but it is a very good one.  Vladimir Ashkenazy certainly knows how this music should go.  His is an idiomatic and balanced interpretation of Rimsky-Korsakov's score.  This is not a Stokowskian swoon fest, nor a precision powerhouse performance like Reiner’s.  It is does not surge with the high octane of Svetlanov, nor is it ablaze with the passion of Kondrashin – the latter’s performance with the Concertgebouw (Philips 454 550-2) is my benchmark.  It is, however, a colourful and highly enjoyable account played by a virtuoso orchestra on top form.

One of the great assets of this recording is Christopher Warren-Green's expressive portrait of the young sultana.  Krebbers for Kondrashin is more sweetly seductive, but Warren-Green finds an extra dimension to Scheherazade’s character.  His light and shade throughout bring out both her sensuous story telling and her trepidation.  For example, he gives his arpeggios at about 6:40 into the third movement and elsewhere a rhetorical quality, as if Scheherazade's mind is racing between spoken thoughts.  He is also perfectly balanced, with his solo lines emerging naturally from within the orchestra rather than being spotlit up front. 

The opening bars of The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship are portentous.  Tender woodwind chords follow to open the way for the violin's first entrance.  The rocking motion of the lower strings is almost languid, but energetic playing from the violins keeps the sense of adventure.  Delicate contributions from the solo winds and horn perfume the air.  Ashkenazy maintains the momentum well, though he has a tendency to broaden the tempo here and especially in climaxes of the concluding movement. 

The central movements are beautifully done.  The Story of the Kalandar Prince opens with a lesson in understated eroticism before building in mystery.  The brass playing in the suspense music at about 4:00 works beautifully, though there is a slight sag in tension in the following transition.  In The Young Prince and Princess Ashkenazy balances languor with smoulder.  The excitement and controlled panic at the opening of the final movement melt into and out of more lyrical passages.  You can hear the origins of Respighi’s Feste Romane in the market scenes at the opening of this movement.  The tempest and shipwreck are effective, though they sound like they are happening in slow motion – Ashkenazy could move more here.  The final bars, though, are simply gorgeous. 

The Philharmonia Orchestra, the most Russian sounding of London's bands, gives Ashkenazy everything he asks for.  The brass in particular are spectacular.  The solo trumpet in the third movement is proud and clear and his rapid tonguing in the fourth movement is impressive.

The suite from The Tale of Tsar Saltan, comprising the preludes to Acts I, II and IV of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera of the same name, is a charming and atmospheric coupling.  This is colourful music in a folksy fairytale way, and is again very well played.  Each prelude opens with a trumpet fanfare, but their moods contrast nicely.  The central movement is darker-hued and more dangerous than its companions, and the vivid thwack of the bass drum in the celebratory final movement will make you jump. 

The Flight of the Bumblebee, also from The Tale of Tsar Saltan, makes an odd and anticlimactic encore, lightly and brightly dispatched though it is.  If its inclusion was mandatory it would have been better placed between the two suites. 

Decca’s digital sound is warm and leaves space around the orchestra.  The balance is excellent, with the keening high violin lines never too forward in Scheherazade, the winds prominent but not overly so and the brass cutting through beneath their colleagues rather than overpowering them.

Tim Perry



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