> Rimsky_Korsakov Brilliant Box [RB]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade [42.19]
Symphony No. 1 in E minor Op. 1 (1865) [29.22]
Symphony No. 2 Op. 9 "Antar"(1868 rev. 1897) [31.15]
Symphony No. 3 in C major Op. 32 (1866-73, rev. 1886) [30.10]
The Tsar's Bride [6'18]
Fantasia on Serbian Themes [7'07]
Sadko, Musical Picture Op. 5 [11.18]
Song Of India, from Sadko [3.30]
The Golden Cockerel Suite [26.18]
The Tale Of Tsar Saltan, Suite Op. 57 [18.18]
Overture on Russian Themes [11.40]
Fairy Tale (Skazka), Op. 29 (1879-80) [15.54]
Christmas Eve, Suite [29.31]
Flight of the Bumble Bee [1.13]
Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra/Loris Tjeknavorian (Sheherazade, Sadko, India, Cockerel, Saltan, Flight, Christmas Eve)
Rec 1991 Aram Khachaturian Hall, Yerevan, Armenia
Philharmonia Orchestra/Yondani Butt
Rec: 12-14 March 1997, (1985 for Sym 3), All Saints Church, London
All licensed from ASV, UK
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99934 [4CDs: 58.41+75.13+58.08+76.00 ]

Joan Records Superbudget

The market for licensing back catalogue might well repay research. How is it done? Do companies such as ASV, Edel, Chandos and the rest market their wares to people like Brilliant and Regis? Does it rest on personal contact, investigation and knowledge, phone calls and faxes? In the face of the Dutch-based Brilliant Classics it hardly matters as much of their licensed catalogue represents the sort of value for money we could hardly have dreamt about in the 1960s and 1970s. People talk about ‘social inclusion’ but in the classical recordings field Brilliant, Regis, Naxos, Royal Classics are actually doing something about it. People starting out to develop an interest in classical music but with tight budgets are very well served. Long may that continue. At Brilliant's prices both they and seasoned collectors and enthusiasts (not necessarily the same thing) can afford to take a gamble on their sets. This site has, I am pleased to say, taken a special interest in the bargain price field and we try to give a steer towards the best buys or at least to describe so that you can decide what would suit you best.

All the music on these four CDs comes from ASV a company with a rather reticent advertising profile in contrast to their delightfully garish livery. Brilliant do cut the odd corner but that is no harm if your focus is on the music. However let's get the packaging gripes out of the way. The four CDs come in individual jewel cases in a very light slipcase - all shrink-wrapped. I prefer Brilliant's superb wallet design which always looks good and which takes up the least space on the groaning shelves. Each CD cover picture (19th century harem-scene oil paintings) is of a piece with the slipcase design. Notes are by Dr David Doughty who did the same service for the rightly-fêted Shostakovich set from Brilliant. There are a few typos. I noticed quite a clutch of them in the notes for the second disc. Decent discographical information is given on the back of each CD case although you do not get to see this until you have peeled off the shrink-wrap around the slipcase and extracted each jewel case.

Loris Tjeknavorian is an exciting composer-conductor. He seems first to have been picked up by RCA (remember his Khachaturian ballets and complete Borodin from LP days). Unicorn also carried recordings of his own music including the exotic ballet Simorgh. The Lama LP label recorded his two symphonies. I am not sure whether he was recorded more extensively in Armenia (and I would like to know) but his strongest presence came with the cycle of Russian music with his own orchestra, the Armenian Phil, recorded in Yerevan. Brian Culverhouse made several pilgrimages to the Aram Khachaturian Hall and returned with brilliantly coloured and recorded, virile and imaginative performances every time. The Khachaturian series - especially the derided symphonies was excellent.

This is not Tjeknavorian's first Sheherazade. That was made with the LSO and issued on the super hi-fi Chalfont label (also reissued by ASV at bargain price at one time). The present Sheherazade is a pleasurable listen but is not as rhythmically pointed or as gripping as the best (Svetlanov, Stokowski, Beecham, Ormandy, Serebrier). The Festival of Baghdad - The Sea movement is much better in this respect - listen to the cracking pace at 06.55 in tr. 4, the raw blare of the horns and the aggressive bass drum thud. High points include solo work that oozes and shines with character. The field for recorded Sheherazades is overcrowded (yet when did you last see it in a concert programme?) and in a less thronged catalogue this would have scored much higher.

I knew Sadko first as a Melodiya-recorded opera in one of those sturdy battered LP boxes you could find at Colletts on Charing Cross Road. Later it was one of the works on David Lloyd-Jones’ Philips Universo LPO anthology. There it shared space with the Borodin-Glazunov Third Symphony and the original version of Night on the Bare Mountain. It is a rhapsodic fantasy built from concepts in Rimsky's supernatural oceanic opera. The inspiration is a notch or three down from the Russian Easter Festival but it certainly deserves a place alongside the better Liszt tone poems and Von Bülow's Nirvana. The recording makes the orchestral sound rather glaring at forte and above. The Song of India (again from the opera Sadko) is crushingly seductive piece. Thanks to David Doughty for reminding us that the opera was written in 1896 and comprised six tableaux. Sadko is the name of the hero. The Song of India is one of the songs sung to Sadko to tempt him to go to various exotic locales (an early sort of travel agent’s sales pitch). The other 'sales' songs are for Venice and the Viking Northlands.

Also from those Yerevan sessions comes a whole disc of suites from the Rimsky operas. The Golden Cockerel is a work of the 20th century (1907 to be precise). The composer never heard the piece. The suite is full of colourful allusions and the linkage with Stravinsky's Firebird and Nightingale as well as with the satirical operas of Prokofiev (principally The Love of Three Oranges) is patent. Those strident trumpets right at the start set the pace and atmosphere and declare the work one of Rimsky's prime inspirations. The Queen Semakha movement ripples and shivers with melodic magic and if you like Ippolitov-Ivanov's Procession of the Sardar and Borodin's Prince Igor you will appreciate this music. The old Ormandy recording of the suite (now on Sony Essential Classics) is still a strong contender but this presents a much brighter and clearer recording though the Armenians lack the sleek Philadelphian tone. Very enjoyable. The tripartite Saltan suite (1900) is cheerful and vaingloriously racy. In the movement depicting The Tsarina in a barrel at sea he returns to the glittering realms of Sadko. The flighty Bumble-Bee is painted with brilliance and pace. In the Christmas Eve Suite one can hear where the young Bax derived much of his inspiration for the earliest tone poems and for Spring Fire - just listen to 1.23 in tr. 9 and the start of the Games and Dances movement (tr.10). The opera has the same plot-line as Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki.

The other two discs are built around Rimsky's three symphonies with Fairy-Tale and Overture on Russian Themes filling out the disc with the Third Symphony. The orchestra is the LSO except in the case of the Overture where the Philharmonia do the honours. The conductor is Yondani Butt. The Overture is not well known. In fact I am fairly sure I had not heard it before. It is a divertissement on folk-like themes but is not the equal of Mily Balakirev's similar titled overture. Fairy-Tale (Skazka in the original) might easily apply as a description to any of the non-Symphonic works. The Third Symphony is smoothly and unexceptionably structured. A subtle unassertive Brahmsian song plays like limelight through the first movement. The Glazunovian chatter of the second movement is followed by an andante which uses an accented woodwind figure later to be developed as the Dodon fanfare for The Golden Cockerel music. Yondani Butt, time after time, gives this music restless life and if he can be breathless (as in the finale with its Tchaikovskian sighs) he cannot be accused of flaccidity or inducing boredom.

The overture to The Tsar's Bride (1899) is well worth getting to know. Though it ends on submissive calls from the woodwind its earlier episodes are full of tension and tragedy; a Russian echo of other concert overtures: Schumann's Julius Caesar and Mendelssohn's Ruy Blas. The Serbian Fantasia (only a minute longer than the overture) is an earlyish work from a couple of years after the First Symphony. It lacks the concentration of the great works though the mannerisms and hallmarks are all there.

The First Symphony predates Tchaikovsky's First by a couple of years. It has the authentic Russian nationalist character and while it flirts with quite a few Schumann-like gestures it is not shackled to Germanic manners unlike the symphonies of Anton Rubinstein. The finale had me thinking of a much finer work, Parry's First Symphony (once fierily recorded by the English SO conducted by William Boughton on a long-gone nimbus CD). This is once again given a zestful spin by Butt and the Philharmonia. It really blazes in the last five minutes.

The real discovery comes with a work I encountered more than three decades ago from an old EMI-Melodiya LP (Moscow Radio SO/Rozhdestvensky): the Antar Symphony. Dr Doughty reminds us that it is more of a ‘Symphonic Suite’ than a ‘Symphony’. I am not sure how important that is. If we ignore Sheherazade it is the freshest, most brazenly imaginative, most violent and sensual of all the works in this set. The recording really does it justice being lively and sounding front to back deep as well as with a wide but not synthetic soundstage. The brass ‘barks’ at 4.10 illustrate what I mean (tr 7). The woodwind are highlighted to some degree but not quite so much as in the Melodiya recording. Where Rozhdestvensky wins over Butt is in affection. Butt shades out degrees of ecstatic absorption reflected in his phrasing and his sense of hurry. While the Russians relish exotic beauty Butt seems to be saying ‘OK that's enough of that - time to move on’. Butt fares much better in the third movement allegro.

If Brilliant Classics are looking for further licensing concepts then let me recommend them to approach Unicorn for the Fenby Delius and Panufnik series, ASV for Tjeknavorian's Khachaturian orchestral cycle (with the film music please!) and now that Chandos are on the cusp of a new Bax symphony series why not approach them for permission to issue the Bryden Thomson cycle at super-bargain level? Brilliant's next instalment is a box of Weber orchestral music: symphonies, overtures and concertante works.

This Rimsky box is inexpensive, generous and covers unusual territory. If we ignore The Flight of the Bumble-Bee the only really famous work here is the Sheherazade. If you are interested only in the symphonies then try the USSRSO/Evgeny Svetlanov set on a BMG-Melodiya Twofer (74321 40065 2: 76:18+74:41). Neeme Järvi on DG (1988), Dmitri Kitaenko on Chandos (1990) and Evgeny Svetlanov on Hyperion (1990) should also be worth auditioning. Nothing here is less than good from a recording and interpretative viewpoint so I confidently recommend this set.
Rob Barnett

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