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Nikolay Andreyevich RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
The 1001 Nights - Sheherazade, Op. 35
      Sinbad the Sailor
      The Story of a Dervish
      The Prince and Princess
      The Story of the Second Dervish

Narrated by Bernard Cribbins
David Nolan, violin
Philharmonia Orchestra, London/ Enrique Bátiz
NAXOS 8.555889 [79:07]

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Look at the cover of this disc and you can see there is no mention of the title of the musical work on which it is based. Rimsky-Korsakovís symphonic suite Sheherazade, inspired by Tales of Arabian Nights, was not intended to be performed with spoken commentary. This is no Peter and the Wolf. Yet Naxos have chosen to market the disc on the strength of verbal story telling potential, thus playing down the fact that it contains a very fine performance of a colourful orchestral repertory piece. I assume the aim is to target a childrenís Christmas market.

Bearing this in mind I will start with the commentary which takes up well over half the disc time-wise. The four stories that are told before each movement are chosen according to a programme that Rimsky-Korsakov was persuaded to release for an early performance. He regretted this later because, as he explains in his memoirs, the music was composed with the Arabian Nightsí general atmosphere of exotic fairy-tale in mind rather than any particular story. Having said that, he did make specific reference to Sinbad the Sailor and the sea, and the recurring solo violin intentionally represents Sheherazade as the story teller. On the disc there is an introduction that sets the scene and explains the threatening circumstances that surround the telling of the tales.

I confess I have never enjoyed a performance of Sheherazade so much. The reason being that the commentary effectively sucked me into the fairy tale world that Rimsky-Korsakov intended I should go. It felt like a regression to childhood but the experience was none the worse for that. I like Bernard Cribbins' rendering very much. It is a no-nonsense approach that can generate tension where necessary without any histrionics, nor, I am glad to say, any thespian-style over exaggerated diction which is often the plague of this kind of accompaniment. Thank goodness Ian Richardson isnít doing it.

As for the music, the Philharmonia is in crack world-class form both collectively and individually in a work that abounds in instrumental solos. Bátiz has a rather exaggerated way with his sforzandi and staccati, so punchy at times that the flow of the music is threatened and this is compounded by close recording, particularly of the wind solos (I could hear the key pads clatter on the oboe). At times I yearned for a more wallowing string sound, especially in the wonderful nautical undulations of the first movement. These personal reservations aside, this is a performance (including David Nolanís excellent extended violin solos) to compare with any and has sound to match.

What Naxos does not come clean about anywhere in the booklet or on the disc itself, is that this is a recycled performance of Sheherazade recorded eight years ago. It was admired then and was unquestionably a bargain buy. And so it remains. If you just want it for the music you can cue the disc accordingly. If you want to regress into the faraway, fairy tale land of the Arabian Nights with words and music then Bernard Cribbins is your man.

John Leeman

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