This generously timed set presents, in glowing performances and bruisingly
vivid brazen sound, the symphonic legacy of one of the world's greatest
orchestral colourists. It lacks only the Sinfonietta on Russian Themes
(1880) to make it a complete canvas of Rimsky's symphonic oeuvre. As
it is, the set offers four very substantial works across two well-filled
In 1985 Svetlanov recorded most of the other orchestral works and these were
well done on a now deleted pair of Olympia discs (OCD211, 227) which included
the 'missing' Sinfonietta.
The only truly well-known work on offer is the concert favourite,
Sheherazade. This has been recorded countless times by all manner
of orchestras and conductors. Over the years I have heard several of the
recordings most highly praised and have always counted the present one high
in the poetry and drama stakes. Svetlanov's is the version which I for some
years had on tape and through which I came to know the piece. I have never
heard it in concert; still less have I heard live the other symphonic works
here. I count Beecham's and Stokowski's RPO recordings to be among the best.
Stokowski's resplendent last version (with the LSO) was very strong indeed
but I am not sure if it is still available.
Svetlanov's orchestra is imposingly black-toned in the brass which play with
a malevolent edge whenever the Sultan's music enters. The solo violinist
in the USSRSO was Heinrich Friedheim when this recording was made in 1969.
I would like to know more about him and how someone with such a German name
came to be leader of the USSRSO. His tone is beguiling, allusive and sensual.
The attack by the strings is heavily accented with bows digging deep. The
orchestral lines are underscored and etched. Highlights include a delectable
dialogue between violin and flute at 8:01(track 1). Because the work became
a concert war-horse we tend to forget the magnificence and generosity of
Rimsky's melodies which seem to spin their silk and gold endlessly. The
cobalt-black brass have great attack. The sound is of a grand orchestra in
a richly reverberant acoustic but with sufficient damping to prevent textures
Svetlanov can spin a sinuous serenade of the night with the best and has
just the right sense of pacing, slowing and quickening - hesitancy and
impetuousness. At 7:17 on track 3 Freidheim's bow can be heard scudding across
strings. Friedheim colours the tone of his instrument hoarsely, perhaps
suggesting that the eponymous heroine is beginning to lose her voice. He
plays the role of the liberated woman animatrix to perfection. A great example
of 'girl power' triumphant over the Sultan's male oppression. However as
the composer warned us we should not become too fascinated by the plot and
the titles of the movements. The music is grand in the amplitude of its
imagination and in its potently exotic enchantment well caught in the closing
bars as Friedheim evokes the long-eyelashed eyelids of the beautiful storyteller
closing in sleep.The composer was 44 when he completed the work. It is the
latest composition on these discs.
The first symphony is nowhere near so striking, though obviously an accomplished
piece by a young composer (21) in awe of Schubert, Beethoven and Dvorak (the
early symphonies). The middle movement seems to hint at the main theme in
the middle movement of the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto. The final movement
ends in sharply defined and burred brass fanfares. Overall though the symphony
plays well in the charm league occupied by many of the works of Glazunov
Antar is one of Rimsky's least appreciated works. It is a close cousin
in spirit to Sheherazade and the slinky enchantress Gul-Nazar is a
sister in spirit to the Arabian teller of tales ... marvellous tales. She
is also not a long step away from Balakirev's deadly Tamara. The pacing
by Svetlanov is elastic and pliant. He weights the liturgical and oriental
tunes with an ear to curves and melodrama. Heart-breaking intensity, stuttering
barbarous shouts from the trombones distinguish this masterful work as does
a certain heroism. In the second movement horns can be heard calling away
and resolving into a toe-tappingly compulsive 'trish trash' dance. The third
movement's stamping dance literally lilts into a tune and then a great majestic
dance with chirping wind in background. Track 3 at 5:54 is an illustration
of how Svetlanov gloriously draws out the brass. The fourth movement has
a long Tchaikovskian sobbing line hinted at by oboe the at first but soon
developed without restraint by the orchestra. Let no-one underestimate the
glories of this work and this performance. The Monteux is a highly-rated
historic performance in sound to match. The Svetlanov Hyperion is highly
thought of but is not generously coupled. There are also Chandos and DG versions.
The Symphony No. 3 opens in whispering snow and develops into a stertorously
tramping dance. This becomes increasingly dashing. Rimsky has left behind
orientalism now and follows cleaner classical lines. The work includes a
great sledging hymn to winter - all icy pools and snow-hung trees rather
like Tchaikovsky's 'Winter Daydreams' and Winter from Glazunov's 'Seasons'.
This work is more appealing than the first symphony but you should not expect
great tunes. The final movement is tender and coaxing not a million miles
from Hollywood and Korngold.
Each disc offers a better known work with a lesser known work.
Recording quality is never less than respectable. It is vivid and clear.
Refined it isn't. However this music benefits from a blend of opposites:
wild abandon and a disciplined unanimity of attack. Both are in evidence
in both technical and performance values.
The more you listen to this music the more apparent becomes the debt owed
by Ravel, Stravinsky, Bax, Guridi, Debussy, Holst and a host of others.
Apart from its significance in the history of music of the romantic imagination
these works, and especially Antar and Sheherazade, are loveable and carry
a potent magic still. Recapture that magic with Svetlanov and these Russian
musicians and recordings. If you are tired of smoothed and refined international
edges in recordings and crave the peppery and imaginative in music these
recordings are for you.
Good notes by Sigrid Neef.
There is no similarly coupled competition.