Sheherazade – Ansermet/Decca, Reiner/RCA, Gergiev/Philips
Symphony No. 2 – Maazel/Telarc
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade is an epic
work of eroticism and primitive sexuality, certainly unsuited
for a performance that is orderly and restrained. Kees Bakels
and the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra tend toward restraint
and do not approach the many exceptional versions on the market
including the Reiner, Gergiev and Ansermet.
Simply listening to the Bakels in isolation does
yield much pleasure. His orchestra frequently whips up quite a
frenzy, and the playing is spot-on with violinist Markus Gundermann
particularly precise and lyrical. However, I don’t hear
any ‘soul’ to the interpretation and consider it rather
Sheherazade’s goal is to postpone her execution
by the Sultan through keeping him in an enthralled state with
fascinating tales. Essentially, that’s exactly what a great
performance does to the listener who enters the story-world of
Sheherazade and remains emotionally transfixed to each sentence/musical
line. Sad to say, this reviewer is not even slightly drawn in
by Bakels and his orchestra.
The first few minutes of the 4th movement presents
ready evidence of the performance’s failings. The violin
solo is matter-of-fact, not expressing the intense yearnings required.
When the music heats up, every note is in place and Bakels is
highly energetic. However, there’s little fire, tension
or sense of continuity. It takes much more than ‘loud and
fast’ to make a story come alive.
To be fair, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra
was formed just a few years ago and held its first public concert
in 1998. Still, Sheherazade is immensely popular program music
with a huge discography of distinction, and a reviewer must make
recommendations on the basis of the competition.
The Antar Symphony, which has just a few recordings
on the market, is an apt coupling for Sheherazade in that both
are exotic, brilliantly orchestrated and constitute program music
of fantasy worlds. Antar is a poet/warrior who has fled the vile
ways of mankind. In the 1st movement, he can be found in the desert
where he saves a gazelle from a huge bird of prey. While asleep,
he dreams that he is in a palace where the Queen, in the form
of the gazelle, promises him the joys of vengence, power and love.
The following three movements correspond to the promised joys
with the basic Antar theme interspersed throughout the work for
Rimsky-Korsakov had some trouble deciding whether
the work was really a symphony or a story/suite. He eventually
admitted, “I was wrong in calling Antar a symphony. It was
a poem, suite, fairy-tale, story, or anything you like, but not
a symphony. It has no thematic development whatsoever, only variations
and paraphrases”. Although the composer’s description
is accurate, Antar is a very attractive piece with abundant melody
and super-charged activity in the inner movements. Most appealing
is the basic melody of the first section of the 4th movement;
its heavenly repeat is a sublime stroke of genius on the part
of the composer as the flute takes over the melody line from the
In the hands of Lorin Maazel, Rimsky-Korsakov’s
fantasy world is immediately established in the foreboding introduction,
and he brings alive every episode while maintaining ample cohesion.
Each promised joy is vividly projected, and Maazel clearly feels
this music throughout the performance.
Feeling and atmosphere are the essential elements
lacking in the Bakels version. As in the Bakels Sheherazade, the
music’s fantasy is never realized as Bakels and orchestra
merely offer a professional run-through of the music’s notes.
This might suffice at a live concert, but surface interpretations
cannot withstand the concentration of multiple listenings.
The BIS soundstage only adds to the problematic
nature of the production. The recorded sound does not allow for
a crisp projection from any of the instruments, further retarding
the ability of the orchestra to deliver vivid portrayals.
In conclusion, the new Rimsky-Korsakov disc from
Bakels is not recommended. In an excellent recording of the two
programmed works, the performing forces draw us into the world
of make-believe. Bakels merely stands on the sidelines, never
willing to immerse himself and his orchestra in Rimsky-Korsakov’s
For those looking for a great recording of Sheherazade,
the versions listed in the heading should fully satisfy and there
are many more on the market such as the Beecham and Ormandy recordings.
If the Antar Symphony is the main focus, the Maazel or the Svetlanov
on Helios will offer many hours of unbridled exoticism.