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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)

Scheherazade – Symphonic Suite after “The Thousand and One Nights”, Op. 35 (1888) Symphony No. 2 (Symphonic Suite – Antar), Op. 9 (1868/75/97) Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra/Kees Bakels
Rec. Dewan Filharmonik Petronas Hall, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, November 2002
BIS-CD-1377 [74’34]

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 superficial.

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 thematic unity.

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 oboe.

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 delectable sound-world.

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.

Don Satz

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