[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.
See also review
by Rob Barnett