"Darling, theyíre playing our tune!"
must be one of the most hackneyed - and apocryphal - lines ever
quoted. I for one canít recall the last time I heard it used other
than to get a cheap snigger in a cheap comedy show. The sad thing
about it is that, in common with many such sayings that have been
done to death, it contains a serious sentiment, some snippet of
substance that we would find enriching, were it not obscured by
the clouds of cackling.
For me, all the music on this CD, though not
through these particular recordings, has that unmistakable frisson
of "our tune" - or more precisely, "my tune".
As a callow youth I was fired by the spark of the fag-end of Tchaikovskyís
1812 Overture into exploring the world of so-called "classical
music". In the very early days, the only "stars"
I had to guide me were references to other music in the sleeve-notes
of a meagre LP collection painfully growing from the proceeds
of a paper-round. Thus the 1812 led me to the Capriccio
Italien, which led me to the Capriccio Espagnol, which
led me to Scheherazade, and thence to Le Coq díOr.
The fill-up on the recording of this last was Borodinís Polovtsian
Back then, I had no conscious appreciation of
the finer, or even the blunter, points of music. I was not so
much self-taught as educated by experience. For example, I have
a dim and distant memory of one gloomy mid-winter Saturday afternoon,
following a gruelling three-mile cross-country race through snow,
hoar frost and freezing fog. I was lazing and gazing into the
flickering flames of a real coal fire. The music of Scheherazade,
emanating from my modest record-player, insinuated itself into
my somnolescent mind. It wove such tapestries of sheer mystery
and delight that I dragged my aching limbs over to the record-player
to repeat the experience no fewer than three times. I can think
of no better justification for undergoing such extremes of cross-country
That old mono LP, of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy,
eventually wore out under the onslaught of repeated playings.
When I "got stereo", it was pensioned off in favour
of what turned out to be the resplendent RCA recording of Reiner
and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.. Only then did I learn of
the savage cut in the third movement of the Ormandy recording!
Much later, I graduated to CD with a fine recording of the LSO
under Mackerras. A bit later, I also got the SRO/Ansermet recording
on CD, although this was really an accident - it came on a "Double
Decca" along with some other Rimsky-Korsakov whose LP originals
I had also ground down to residual hiss. However, not even wild
horses would separate me from my cherished Reiner LP which, as
far as I am concerned, still boasts the best cover picture. Maybe
the representation of Sinbadís ship is hardly what youíd call
"authentic", but who cares?
Scheherazade is hardly a rare bird: there
are about 84 recordings listed in the current catalogue, and we
are wading knee-deep in concert performances. Itís hardly surprising,
given the nature of the work, that orchestras of all the shades
under the sun have queued up to have a crack at it, and virtuoso
orchestras in particular are attracted to it like flies to a jam-pot.
What is surprising is that, although the best performances tend
to come from the worldís crack bands, I cannot recall ever hearing
an out-and-out flop! This is one respect in which I donít
live in hope!
This recording by Beecham and the RPO dates from
1957, contemporaneous with Ansermetís 1958 and Reinerís 1960.
EMI were perhaps rash to entitle this series of reissues "Great
Recordings of the Century". Itís an old habit: how many of
us remember their original "stereo demonstration disc"
(SDD1), on which the first words we heard were, "EMI, the
greatest recording organisation in the world . . ."? Such
a boast-laden legend is bound to court controversy, and indeed
has already provoked critical comment. Of this recording, someone
has muttered, "I always considered the Beecham Scheherazade
over-rated". Was he voicing his true opinion, or was he reacting
Scheherazade is said by many to be something
of a "flawed masterpiece" largely because, although
it looks like a symphony, it lacks both "proper"
symphonic form and thematic development. Personally, Iíd argue
over that "flawed", because the composer himself made
it crystal clear that he was in no way even trying to write a
symphony. Then Iíd go further and argue the toss with Rimsky-Korsakov,
because I think he is too modest. Scheherazade actually
does have symphonic form, although its developmental processes
are not the usual thematic ones. Instead, playing to his strengths
and pulling off a brilliantly original and stunningly appropriate
master-stroke, Rimsky-Korsakov makes orchestration - both
timbre and attack - itself a symphonic process. To some extent
at least, the best interpretations ought to be judged on how well
they elicit this unusual strategy. We should also bear in mind,
especially if we are in danger of being swept away in a torrent
of ultra-virtuosic adrenalin, that Scheherazade is not
the musical equivalent of a "blockbuster movie": this
music is not "about" direct experience, but the telling
of wondrous tales.
Sadly, I havenít yet heard the recent Gergiev
issue - anything that can send a seasoned campaigner like Edward
Greenfield into transports of ecstasy has to be at least worth
a listen. However, thereís a caveat: the main reason for EGís
enthusiasm seems to be the unprecedented charge of adrenalin with
which Gergiev imbues the music. Nice though it is to have sackfuls
of the stuff, excitement, as Iíve intimated, is not the be all
and end all of Scheherazade. Where I do find "the
right stuff", in copious quantities, is in a recording that
many think of as mediocre. Although the conductor is a legend,
his orchestra does not rank amongst the virtuoso roof-lifters
of this world. The woodwind, which feature so prominently in this
work, have a highly distinctive flavour that is, for some reason,
not to everyoneís taste. The orchestral ensemble is often distinctly
crumbly, and the performance of the Festival at Baghdad
has all the venom of a grass-snake.
Yet Ernest Ansermetís understanding and judgement
of that all-important colour, and in particular Rimsky-Korsakovís
cunning deployment of colour, is second to none. Also astonishing
is the skill with which he draws those colours out of the Suisse
Romande Orchestra. Backed up by some first-rate vintage Decca
engineering, the sound is cosy and warm to complement the conductorís
"magic carpet". Ansermetís violinist, Lorand Fenyves,
lacks virtuosic self-confidence, but for me plays his seductive
part with greater awareness than most of the character
behind the musical lines. Ansermetís performance of The Flight
of the Bumble Bee on the same issue, coupled with the barnstorming
amplitude that he unleashes on occasions, tends to suggest that
the relative lack of crackling excitement is a matter of choice:
simply, Ansermet was not prepared to sacrifice colour on the altar
of galvanism. That said, Ansermet is overall as quick as Reiner,
and his Young Prince and Princess is a good two and a half
minutes quicker, possibly the nearest approach to Rimsky-Korsakovís
If we turn to my representative of the Digital
Age, we get all the things that Ansermet lacks: the virtuosity
of the LSO on sizzling form, a dynamic range that can crack glass,
and oodles of power and dynamism - plus a whack on the tam-tam
that hangs in the air for what seems an eternity. Make no mistake,
Mackerras can splash the colours around with the best of them,
and yet . . . and yet even in the opening bars he slips up! Rimsky-Korsakov
scored that huge initial blast from Sultan Sharyar for strings,
reinforced by heavy brass. In this recording, the strings
are all but annihilated, and the special colour - the richness
and cosiness - is lost in a blaze of steely brilliance. The Telarc
recording, wide-ranging as it is, doesnít help because in comparison
with the Decca it is almost as if everything was bathed in cobalt-blue
Reiner, on the other hand, is served well by
the RCA recording. Combining poster-paint vividness with affectionate
warmth, this pretty well matches his approach blow for blow. I
find a kinship with Ansermet, once I have eliminated the blatantly
obvious differences - Reinerís CSO is a top-notch orchestra drilled
to near-perfection, with woodwind judiciously spotlit. This is
nevertheless still "story-telling", but itís story-telling
with an injection of transatlantic pep and "pizzaz".
Although Reinerís legendary discipline inevitably imposes a more
direct line, it is by no means metronomically rigid. Take, for
example, the bassoon solo at the start of The Tale of the Kalendar
Prince, strategically placed by Rimsky-Korsakov as the only
woodwind not to have a solo part in the first movement. The CSO
first bassoon is wonderfully sinuous. Detractors snort that (probably)
even here Reinerís control was absolute, with every last smidgin
of "spontaneous" rubato planned in advance. My response,
also snorted, is "What difference does it make how it got
there? Itís there, and thatís all that matters!" If
youíre looking for "Great Recordings of the Century",
this has to be one of them.
That brings us neatly to Beecham and his Royal
Philharmonic Orchestra. Is this "one of them"? The recording,
in common with plenty coming from EMI - and Decca - at that time,
still sounds amazingly sonorous and "naturally" balanced.
Although they are always entirely audible, there is not the least
hint of wind soloists being elevated by microphony to the concerto
soloistís location, which helps to preserve that important "veil
of mystery". The remastering sensibly does not suppress the
tape hiss between tracks, and indeed the very presence of that
hiss is evidence of faith being kept with the original recording.
On the down side, that original recording has a somewhat "papery"
treble, conspicuous by its absence from the Decca recording for
Ansermet. Zipping through the trough and back up the other side,
Iím happy to tell you that dropping my amplifierís treble a notch
or so appreciably alleviated the "papery" quality. In
any case, I found for the most part that my ears quickly adjusted.
Beecham, like Ansermet and Reiner, manages to
make the opening phrase looming and baleful by the simple expedient
of weighting the powerful brass commensurately against the strings.
A good omen, I thought, and an immediate confirmation, if any
was needed, that Rimsky-Korsakov knew exactly what he was about.
Thereafter Beecham, through his famously relaxed podium manners,
extracts playing from the orchestra that is at least as wonderfully
evocative as that evinced by Reinerís tight discipline. I wouldnít
say he quite matches Ansermetís seemingly supreme narrative skills,
but he comes pretty damned close, as he might have said
himself. By way of compensation, the RPO play their socks off.
To be fair, they arenít quite in the same class as the CSO. Sadly,
I canít bring myself to agree with booklet note writer Lyndon
Jenkins, who in his splendidly spirited advocacy says of bassoonist
Gwydion Brooke, "[The] bassoon solo in the second movement
is idiosyncratic to a marvellous degree". It may well be
true but, as far as I am concerned, only if you havenít heard
Reinerís bassoonist. Mind you, even if itís not that good,
it is still exceptional!
Following Berlioz who first liberated percussion
and, from our perspective, overshadowed by Mahler who gave percussion
"full independence", we tend to forget - or at least
take for granted, which is just as bad - Rimsky-Korsakovís remarkable
understanding of the capabilities of the orchestral "kitchen".
One of the main features of his "strategic orchestration"
in this work is his progressive deployment of percussion. Now,
youíd think that this fact alone would ensure that conductors
paid exceedingly careful attention to the percussion, but no,
not a bit of it. Iím convinced that the only way youíll hear anything
approaching all of it will be to put all the recordings together
in a bag and shake well.
Of all the performances Iíve heard, the only
one that comes near to pulling off the entrancing last few bars
of The Young Prince and Princess is, believe it or not,
that ancient Ormandy effort. What makes me so certain of this
is that, having been so thoroughly goose-bumped by it all those
years ago, I have been patiently waiting for a repeat of the experience.
Iím still waiting.
Beecham, bless his cotton socks, comes preciously
close and whatís more he is by far the most consistently attentive.
Does this make his digitally-remastered analogue recording "better"
than state-of-the-art digital recordings? No, it doesnít. Iíve
a feeling that nowadays conductors, seduced by the high resolution
recording technology, try to go all "subtle" on us.
However, when subtlety becomes inaudibility it is no longer subtlety,
but mere underlining of the lack of due care and attention. Beecham,
whose cotton socks are doubly blessed, works this wonder simply
by making sure that the players bang on their cans hard enough.
No matter how well you "know" this
music, you can rest assured that Beecham and his RPO will raise
your eyebrows, and the corners of your mouth, on numerous occasions
(and they wonít be the same occasions for everybody!). Yes, I
can hear bits of percussion that are felicitous where they were
previously at best dimly perceived, but I also pricked up my ears
at the ingenious attack on some of the sforzandi, and found myself
cooing over yummy phrasing, and banging my foot at the sheer swagger
in the marching passages, and . . . Iím sure you get the idea.
Those with eyes like hawks may have noticed thereís
a fill-up that Iíve scarcely even mentioned. Critical comment
can almost be limited to "itís more of the same", except
that thereís a chorus to consider. Going back nearly as far as
that Ormandy Iíve had Antal Doratiís Mercury recording of the
Polovtsian Dances in my collection. This was the one where
the Mercury engineers, searching for the right balance between
chorus and orchestra, placed the two in opposition with the "living
presence" microphone setup in the middle! I donít know whether
the EMI engineers tried anything so radical here, but theyíve
captured the resplendent Beecham Choral Society an absolute treat!
Ravelís Daphnis and Chloe suite No. 2
and the Polovtsian Dances are both generally played without
the choral parts of the original ballet and opera respectively.
In both cases, I grew up with recordings which bucked the trend.
In spite of a nagging suspicion that I might be simply prejudiced
by what I know best, I feel that in both cases something of the
"soul" of the music is lost without the chorus. For
these dances, that "soul" is the sheer rampant delight
that massed voices add to the "oriental splendour" already
well evident in the orchestral sound. Itís a sonic luxury,
like garnishing a huge mound of assorted ice-creams with a massive
dollop of chocolate sauce. Suffice it to say that the choral part
is here dispatched with chocolate-laced passion. Yum, yum.
So, is this a "Great Recording of the Century"?
Well, as a recording itís good, but not great. EMIís remastering
engineer, Simon Gibson, could have done something about that "papery"
top, but chose not to - at least, I presume that he chose not
to. Instead, it sounds very much as I remember the original LP
did. Anyway, you can always tweak your tone controls, because
it would be a shame to miss Beechamís great interpretation on
account of such a minor matter. For a great interpretation this
most certainly is, one worthy to stand alongside the likes of
Reiner, and brimming with a character all its own. With this issue,
maybe a new generation of youngsters can become as enchanted as
I was by Rimsky-Korsakovís "magical mystery tour", and
be set on a course through life that will, forty years or so hence,
have them bemoaning the fact that "nobody does it as good
as that ancient recording of Tommy Beechamís". I hope so.
of The Century