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Oriental Tales
Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Ballet Suite: Belkis,  Queen of Sheba
(1888)
Il sogno di Salomone [08:11]; Danza guerresca [10:55]; La Danza di Belkis all’aurora [07:05]; Danza orgiastica [05:10]
Nikolai RIMSKI-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Symphonic Suite: Scheherazade op. 35 (1932)
Largo e Maestoso [10:00]; Andantino [12:11]; Andantino quasi allegretto [10:23]; Allegro molto [12:36)
Kazuhiro Takagi, violin (Rimsky)
Frank Bossert, tenor (Respighi)
Württemberg Philharmonic Orchestra, Reutlingen/Norichika Limori
Recorded Reutlingen, Germany, 2004
GENUIN GEN 04047 [68:37]

 

 

Here is a coupling of two colourfully orchestrated works based on Western Europe’s traditional fantasy about the exoticism of  the mysterious Orient – the Orient being what we now call the Middle East including the  North East corner of Africa. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, an absolute staple of the orchestral diet, is inspired by the Arabian Nights stories. The much less well-known Ballet Suite by Respighi is about the Queen of Sheba’s journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to visit to Solomon.

The Württemberg Philharmonic is a good orchestra but by no means one of Germany’s better known ones to the world at large. For such an orchestra it can be hard to break into, and thrive in, the classical CD market. One answer can be to go for niche areas. The orchestra has recently done this by recording symphonic works by Tango composer Astor Piazzolla for the Chandos label. It can be risky to go into the crowded area of repertory showpieces. That is what they have done here with  Scheherazade.  I think it a mistake. These performances, for me at any rate, do not hit the spot. My verdict in a nutshell is that the team of Norichika Limori and the Württembergers bring a Japanese/German efficiency to music that is unlikely to transport you to the sensuous, fairy-tale world that the composers depict.

The coupling is an interesting one because the two pieces are strongly related. So much so that you could regard Respighi’s ballet work of 1932 as a son or daughter of Scheherazade. Rimsky was a pupil of Respighi in Russia and could not have learned the basics of orchestration from a better man. In choosing such exotic subject matter, the music clearly owes much to Rimsky’s Scheherazade, a work written 44 years before.

Part and parcel of the West’s fantasy about the exotic Orient is the erotic, and both works have this ingredient. In the third movement, Respighi has Belkis, the Queen of Sheba, dreaming about Solomon in what the notes call a “male fantasy par excellence”. She gradually wakes and starts to dance to greet the sun. The music has an Arabian tambourine (similar to the familiar sort but without the little jingling discs) tapping away to the sound of sensuous, undulating woodwind. The orchestral players perform well enough but no one seems to have told them the story. It’s all a bit stiff-shirted. The final movement is the Orgiastic Dance that Solomon has laid on for his visitor and the music reminds us that between Scheherazade and the ballet, Stravinsky had rocked the musical world with the raw, pounding rhythms of The Rite of Spring. The players simply cannot cast off their stiff shirts and throw themselves into this orgy with requisite abandon.

It is a similar story in Scheherazade. The music illustrates fairy tales within a fairy tale and the grand opening suggest that matters of great import are to be related.  I do not feel enough import from this performance. The solo violin then enters, representing Scheherazade who sets about preserving her life by transfixing the Sultan with her story-telling. The sensuous solo line suggests she has other means with which to impress the Sultan but Kazuhiro Takagi’s playing is curiously chaste.

When the huge rolling waves of Sinbad’s sea get going, I had a feeling that the members of this orchestra had never had any nautical experience.  Well Reutlingen is a long way from the sea.  When the music returns in the last movement in a great heaving recapitulation it can be a hugely exciting moment but I fear the opportunity is missed.

I know this sounds harsh and I do not want to suggest that the orchestra is not playing well and with great professionalism. I suspect the problem is the conductor who is not able to carry his players into the wonderful fantasy world that both composers paint so well in sound.  This type of music just may not be in his blood.

The disc makes for a good coupling but if your priority is Scheherazade then there are plenty more convincing performances available. One of my favourites is on a bargain priced Naxos CD played by  the Philharmonia under Enrique Bátiz.  Naxos also have the same performance on the market with the stories narrated between the movements (I doubt Rimsky would have approved). It sells as “1001 Nights”: see my review at http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2001/Dec01/Rimsky-Sheher.htm. The sound has a spacious ambience lacking in the Württemberg recording.

For the Respighi work, a fairly recent, well thought of performance is by the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Eiji Oue. See review at http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2002/Jun02/RespighiBelkis.htm.

John Leeman

 

 

 



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