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Nicolai Andreyevich RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844 - 1908)
Le Coq d’Or: Suite (1907) [25.27]
Recorded 5 July 1956
Capriccio Espagnol, Op 34 (1887) [15.14]
Russian Easter Overture, Op 36 (1888) [15.09]
Recorded 6 June 1959
Alexander BORODIN (1833 - 1887)
Prince Igor: Polovtsian dances (1875) [11.06] [Sung in English translation]
Recorded 4 July 1956
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Antal Dorati
Recorded Walthamstow Town Hall, London, England. ADD
Notes in English.
Previously released on Philips Mercury Living Presence CD 434 308-2
Hybrid SACD playable on SACD players and CD players. 3.0 and 2.0 SACD tracks, 2.0 CD tracks.


Comparison Recordings

[identical program] Philips Mercury Living Presence ADD CD 434 308-2

Rimsky-Korsakov, Russian Easter Festival Overture, Capriccio Espagnol, Hermann Scherchen LSO, AAD TAHRA TAH 416

Rimsky-Korsakov, Russian Easter Overture, Leopold Stokowski, RCA mono LP LM 1816.

Alexander Borodin, Prince Igor, Danon, Belgrade National Opera. Decca LP OSA 1501 (OP).

In 1908, just before he died, Nicolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov—whose father was Andrey Nicolayevich Rimsky-Korsakov, whose father had been Nicolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov, and so on — assembled a suite of orchestral excerpts from his last and in some ways his greatest opera, Le Coq d’Or. Rimsky-Korsakov’s two star pupils, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, had broken with him and he no longer spoke to them. Three years previously, the students at the St. Petersburg Conservatory of which Rimsky-Korsakov was Director had demonstrated in support of the rebelling peasants and sailors. Rimsky-Korsakov had encouraged them, an act which had led to his being suspended from his position. But the Tsar was magnanimous. He forgave rebellion, without doing anything to ameliorate the provocations, and restored Rimsky-Korsakov to his positions as Director of the Conservatory and as “kapellmeister” of the Royal chapel.

There is nothing here of the complacency and sentimentalism that infected some of Rimsky-Korsakov’s earlier operas. Being an intimate of the royal family, he naturally spoke flawless, fluent French; aphorisms hold that he is the only person who ever successfully one-upped Saint-Saëns, the French Oscar Wilde, face to face. The story of Coq d’Or is brutal and satirical. Rimsky-Korsakov took the scenario from a story by Pushkin and commissioned a librettist to set it to poetry. The Tsar character is a lunatic, heeding the advice of a fake holy man, and is murdered on stage. The opera’s greatest hit is a sunrise song, promising a beautiful world to come. Naturally the censors demanded huge cuts, Rimsky-Korsakov refused, so the opera was denied a performance permit, hence the need to extract the orchestral music for performance. Even if Rimsky-Korsakov was no longer speaking to Stravinsky, it is not hard to hear in Coq d’Or some echoes of Le Sacre du Printemps which Stravinsky was to premier in Paris just five years in the future. In 1914 Coq d’Or, choreographed by Fokine, was danced as an opera/ballet in Paris, London, Berlin, and New York. Although the brutally censored version was staged in Russia shortly after the death of the composer it was not seen complete there until 1931.

This Suite is nearly a self-contained work, almost a tone poem, and contains the best episodes of the orchestral music. The story is missing, but it isn’t a very good story anyhow. The famous Hymn to the Sun is not included in the Suite, but is available from many other sources since, like “The Song of India” from Sadko and “The Flight of the Bumblebee” from Tsar Saltan, it has become a pop concert classic.

Before he began working his way up the ladder as music director of various provincial American symphony orchestras Antal Dorati spent eleven years of his apprenticeship as a ballet conductor which experience gave to his performances a strong and vigorous rhythmic backbone. Since Coq d’Or was danced as a ballet, it fits in well with the other music on this disk, and the result was a legendary musical performance coupled with the most brilliant recording. I owned the original LP, the CD, and now the SACD, each time moving closer to the music with a rising level of excitement. In an interview Dorati once said, “I am one of the very best...” and this disk is eloquent evidence that he had a perfectly correct idea of his own ability.

The first monophonic hi-fi recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Overture and Capriccio by Stokowski and Scherchen in 1953 were for their time stunning showcases of recording technology and created sensations at hi-fi demos. When five years later Dorati recorded these same works in stereo, he crowned himself the king of hi-fi for many years to come, and it is nice to greet old friends and find them in such healthy condition, ready to retain their leadership position. It is only in the Coq d’Or selections where the long silences reveal an occasional bump or truncation that suggests a few unresolveable problems with deterioration of the master tape. It’s my job to listen for things like this, but they’re not in any way obtrusive.

It’s nice to be verified a prophet; it was in 1960 that I first predicted in a magazine article that these Mercury Living Presence tapes would be made available to us some day in three-channel sound, and here they are. Three channels means just that; no rear channel information, but an independent front centre channel. What your surround sound processor might make of that I don’t know, because my sound equipment, however many options it offers, will not play an SACD in fake surround sound. I am inferring from the CD tracks what the perspective would be like, and on that basis I suspect it would be quite worthy. But you won’t be interested in the three channel version of this recording unless your front speakers are large and all of equally impressive quality, and then you will have a heavily centre-weighted perspective. If, like me, you have two really good corner speakers with a dialogue speaker for your centre channel, you will get the best sound from the SACD two channel version, and that sound will be very fine indeed.

Of the Borodin selection, Dorati’s LP competition was the complete opera set on Decca which had been released in the mid-1950s in mono but revealed sonic wonders in the stereo incarnation. Ten full price LP sides proved to be too much opera for people looking for a hi-fi demo and this recording was largely overlooked, even though it has the scariest Polovtsky March ever recorded and was the first time we ever heard the Polovtsian Dances absolutely complete, in Russian, including Khan Konchak’s asides. As with the other — generally highly admirable — Decca Belgrade opera recordings from this period it apparently (and regrettably) never appeared on CD.

Even on my “C” music system I could hear a slightly improved quality to the CD tracks on this Hybrid SACD compared to earlier CD-only release. That is not by any means always the case.

Paul Shoemaker

See also review by Rob Barnett

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