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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Capriccio Espagnol Op. 34 (1887) [15:14]
Le Coq d'Or suite (1908) [25:27]
Russian Easter Festival Overture Op. 36 (1887) [15:09]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Polovtsian Dances (1887) [11:16]
London Symphony Orchestra Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Antal Dorati
Rec. Walthamstow Town Hall, 4 July 1956 (Dances); 5 July 1956 (Coq); 9 June 1959 (Capriccio, Overture). Originally issued on LPs SR90122 (Coq, Dances); SR90265 (Capriccio, Overture). ADD
SACD reviewed in CD format
MERCURY LIVING PRESENCE 475 6194 SACD [67:06]


 


Selected comparisons

Le Coq díOr Suite Ė Philh O/ Kurtz (EMI 0777-7-67729-2-9)
Polovtsian Dances Ė Beecham Choir Soc/RPO/Beecham (EMI 7243-5-66983-2-1)
Capriccio Espagnol Ė LSO/Mackerras (Telarc CD-80208)
Russian Easter Festival Overture Ė OSR/Ansermet (Decca 443 464-2), Philh O/Svetlanov (Hyperion CDA66399)

The stereophonic vinyl LP record held sway for some thirty years before it was rudely ousted from its throne by the uppity young CD. Although now only some twenty years old, the CD is already being assailed from all sides by a host of pretenders to its throne. Some of these, including SACD and DVD-A, are "pretenders" in both senses of the word - not genuinely new, but simply expansions of the capability of CD technology.

I doubt that any of the offspring of CD will actually ascend to the throne. CD technology increasingly looks like the end of the line for the "gramophone" principle. It doesnít require clairvoyance to guess that the next ruler of the roost will be based on solid-state technology. The players/recorders will have no moving parts, and thus will steadfastly remain in pristine working order, even when they are consigned to the dustbin to make way for the next model, with even whizzier bells and whistles.

Almost inevitably, the carriers will be minuscule memory cards, very much as we already use in digital cameras. I will sorely miss the booklets, which will have to go because a booklet the size of a postage stamp is hardly an ergonomic option. I will not miss that abomination, MP3, and its ilk, whose main contribution to the world of audio has been the surgical removal of the "hi" from "hi-fi". Thankfully, they will become superfluous when gigabytes cost peanuts.

Right now, though, the "hi-est fi" audio carrier is SACD. Mercury, true to form, have married SACD to their time-honoured Living Presence recording methodology. However, the situation is intriguingly different from what it was when Living Presence first was wed to old-fashioned CD. At this juncture you could, if you so wish, satisfy your urge to know whatís so intriguing, by taking a peep at a review I prepared earlier.

Believe it or not, but in my time I have worn out not one but two copies of SR90122. Nowadays, kids seem to get their kicks from sniffing glue or blasting aerosol cans of butane up their noses, but when I was that age I got my kicks sniffing Le Coq díOr (or any other Rimsky-Korsakov that I could lay my hands on) and blasting the Polovtsian Dances into my ears. I sometimes wonder: if my parents had known what this stuff was doing to the insides of their ladís brain, would they have forbidden it? Anyway, by the time the second disc had gone the way of all vinyl, the original Mercury LP was no longer available, and ever since then I have had to make do with a markedly inferior mid-price Philips pressing. In fact, this was so poor that it was touch and go which I discarded, the clapped-out Mercury disc or the newly-acquired Philips. In the end, I kept the Philips because it also included the Prince Igor Overture. That was a Big Mistake, for which I have repented at leisure.

Partly to make up for the loss, eventually I got hold of another classic version of Le Coq díOr. This came on a 2-CD "profile" of Efrem Kurtz - 140 minutes of undiluted bliss for ardent fans of that uniquely Russian brand of colourful, evocative music. Somehow, I never did get round to rooting out an alternative Polovtsian Dances with chorus Ė they arenít exactly thick on the ground - but that sorted itself out when I reviewed Beechamís famous recording of Scheherazade. A caveat is in order, methinks. As an impressionable youth, I succumbed to the musicís exotic spell exclusively - and exhaustively! - through this Mercury LP (SR90122). Even today, I get a special frisson when I listen to it. To put it bluntly, I am prejudiced. Therefore I must be careful Ė and ruthlessly comparative.

First off, then, letís look at the suite from Le Coq díOr. Like most of his operas, Rimsky-Korsakovís final foray into the form is a fairy-tale but, uniquely for him, one with a venomous satirical sting. The suite contains some of Rimsky-Korsakovís most magical and luminous orchestral colours, and thus forms a fitting representative of the pinnacle of his art. Letís not forget, that this is music that, in spite of its predominantly leisurely pace, captured the imagination of at least one averagely hedonistic schoolboy. How does Doratiís version fare when pitted against Kurtzís, recorded some seven years later?

Apart from a slightly quicker third movement, Kurtz is substantially slower than Dorati. He is also more flexible, though this does not always mean "better". Following a carefully moulded cock-crow, Kurtzís dreamy drifting admirably captures the musicís realisation of "weíre busy doing nothing". Just one of several felicitous touches occurs near the end of the first movement, where Kurtz neatly balances the horn to slightly weird, unsettling effect, a ghost of future disaster haunting the peace of the present.

Dorati is more direct. He dispatches the opening fanfare with military precision, and for the "somnolescent" music keeps his tempo both more consistent and less overtly idle. However, whilst Kurtz makes sure that the mounted cymbal is clearly audible, Dorati demonstrates that this is a mistake - the LSOís cymbal makes its presence palpable only through its subtle but spine-tingling intensification of the honeyed atmosphere. Moreover, by giving his players some leeway, Dorati allows the LSOís sensuous woodwind arabesques to coil every bit as smokily as Kurtzís.

The second movementís pervasive aura of mystery and puzzlement is beautifully elicited by Kurtz at a very broad tempo. Unfortunately, in starting his march at the identical pulse, he renders it clod-hopping and disjointed. His subsequent attempt to get it moving proves to be too little and too late, because it still sounds rather weary and care-worn. On the other hand, by bringing Dodonís troops prancing playfully out of the undergrowth, Dorati establishes the same aura through the contrast of cockiness and consternation.

Honours are about even in the third episode. Both conductors inject just the right dosage of saccharine into the main melody, which is a real treat for folk with sweet teeth. In the agitated central dance, Doratiís percussion is much the more colourfully characterised, whilst Kurtz accumulates a greater sense of uninhibited high-jinks through his much more cunningly applied accelerando.

The concluding Marriage Feast and Lamentable End of King Dodon is in every respect the climax of the suite. Rimsky-Korsakov, I am sure, intended it to be a pyrotechnic display of virtuosic orchestration similar in impact to, albeit on a smaller scale than, the finale of Scheherazade. Obvious as that might sound, itís worth remembering how often this music, which demands a tiger on the rostrum, seems to be performed by putative pussy-cats. Though far from being any timid tabby, Kurtz is nevertheless too cautious by half. Like Dorati, he is alive to every nuance of Rimsky-Korsakovís astonishing orchestral palette of poster-paints, but sadly he seems to overlook that other important aspect: the musicís savagely manic quality.

The introductory paragraph, brooding, shimmering, squirming, inching menacingly up the scale at each repetition, is meant to bring us ever closer to the edges of our seats. Kurtz leaves us lounging comfortably whilst Dorati, whose muted brass are positively flesh-crawling, has us chewing our fingernails. From the moment of release when the merry march tune rolls in, Dorati again racks up the tension relentlessly, screwing out of the music every last shred of its luridly illuminated hysteria. Such massive aggression is way over the top, of course, but to my mind thatís exactly the right place for it!

Le Coq díOr shared SR90122 with the fabulous Polovtsian Dances. Although nominally by Borodin, you can frequently sense in it the handiwork of Rimsky-Korsakov, who collaborated with Glazunov on the completion of Prince Igor. There is an abundance - arguably an over-preponderance - of recordings of these dances, although very few of them incorporate the extravagance of the operaís prominent choral part. In my humble opinion, this is like a juicy fruit-cake without icing, or an American football match without cheerleaders Ė which are (dare I say?) the only aspect of the entire spectacle that is even remotely entertaining. Aye, but thereís the rub: really, "spectacle", not to mention "oriental splendour", is the entire raison díêtre of these dances Ė leave out the chorus and you ditch a goodly proportion of the spectacular impact.

For example, I have a perfectly adequate recording by the LSO conducted by Yuri Ahronovitch (Pickwick PCD 804). The problem is that, in common with any other purely orchestral performance, it is full of little "holes". No oboist, no matter how exquisitely he or she plays, can quite capture the seductive charm of ladies singing the "Stranger in Paradise" tune. More significantly no orchestra, no matter how brilliantly it plays, can quite blind you to certain rather limp moments Ė moments where a lusty chorus should be carrying the line. Maybe Iím just biased, because I grew up with a recording that included the chorus, but I canít convince myself of that Ė the evidence for the orchestral versionís defence is just too full of "holes"!

As far as recordings of the full, choral version are concerned, the roost is still ruled by two almost exactly contemporary recordings: this one and the one made just over four months later by the inimitable Sir Thomas Beecham. Depending on your point of view, these rival versions are either gratifyingly or teeth-grindingly complementary! Whilst Beecham is characteristically laid-back, buoying the rhythms and seemingly letting the music swing along of its own accord, Dorati is - equally characteristically - "stood forward", purposefully propelling the music on the path heís chosen for it. However, Beecham doesnít sound too slow, any more than Dorati sounds too driven. In revealing more detail, Beecham yields on richness of texture to Dorati. If you prefer a big choral sound, then go for Beecham. If you prefer an even-handed balance between chorus and orchestra, then go for Dorati. If you insist on an absolutely hiss-free background, then youíre out of luck!

In both versions, I noticed that there were occasions when individual voices tended to poke out from the choral texture. In Beechamís case, this would be down to a chorus microphone being placed a bit too closely. In Doratiís case, the reason is a mite more curious. The story goes that, whilst preparing to make the recording, they couldnít get the balance they wanted between the LSO chorus and orchestra. No matter how they tweaked the "line of three" microphone set-up, the chorus just wasnít coming through. Then, it seems, prompted by the fact that the microphones were omni-directional, someone had a bright idea. They moved the chorus from its customary position behind the orchestra, and into the stalls. This meant that the chorus could be positioned nearer to the microphone array, without the inconvenience of the chorus members riding piggy-back on the string players.

Thatís a neat bit of lateral thinking but, in addition to bending the "rules" of the Living Presence technique close to breaking-point, it seems to have had the undesirable side-effect of placing some individuals a bit too close to one microphone or another, with the same outcome as in the Beecham recording. I know that itís easy to say this with hindsight, but in both instances the cause of the balance problem boiled down to the perennial one of trying to make do with a chorus thatís simply too small relative to the orchestral forces. Beef up the choral contingent and, without recourse to any technical jiggery-pokery, they will make enough sound to do their job properly.

In their different ways these are both stunning performances, played with a verve and virtuosity that will create havoc with your hackles. Thinking about it, Iím rather glad that Iíve got the pair of them on my shelf.

In the far more popular pieces from SR90265 the competition is fiercer, partly because thereís a lot of it, and partly because much of that has the advantage of more modern recording technology. I also feel a little less uncomfortable, because this LP I never possessed and, strange to relate, these Mercury recordings are entirely "new" to me! In some ways, the Russian Easter Festival Overture and the Capriccio Espagnol make strange bedfellows - compare the mixtures: the formerís solemn, sacred chants and rhythmically bluff, densely-coloured festivities with the latterís sultry, smouldering scenes and scintillating dances. In another way, they lie together quite nicely, forming a compact (on LP, too compact!) reminder of Rimsky-Korsakovís supreme sensitivity to his symphonic scenarios.

The relative timings of the overture are interesting. Overall, Svetlanovís 1989 account takes 15í00, fairly close to Doratiís 15í09, whilst Ansermet, recorded in the same year as Dorati, clocks a mere 14í40. Ansermetís timing might seem brisk, but the reason is simply that his average tempo is the highest. Compared to the others, he takes the slow music faster and the fast music slower. Svetlanov, on the other hand, takes an eternity over the slow music, and whips up a fair old lather in the allegros.

Technically, Ansermetís SRO is utterly eclipsed by both the Philharmonia and the LSO, and it does show in a distinct lack of excitement. Nevertheless, under Ansermetís baton their playing is filled with affection and warmth. It may be an acquired taste, but once acquired, the SROís quaint winds bring their own special sort of pleasure. Judged against the standards Decca were setting at the time, the recording is, frankly, a bit of a mess, sounding murky and congested, with enough tape hiss to seduce a randy cobra.

Itís thus surprising that, even though it isnít exactly what youíd call hair-raising, the best-sounding tam-tam of the three is Ansermetís. I find it extremely odd. When you think about it, one of the secrets of Rimsky-Korsakovís success as an orchestrator was his careful husbandry of the more potent instrumental special effects. In this work his deploys the tam-tam, that most potent of potent special effects, with something approaching profligacy. For some reason, I seem to imagine that professional performers and recording engineers would generally be aware of that, yet it seems to have eluded both Dorati/Mercury and Svetlanov/Hyperion.

Where Ansermet allows his solo cadenzas some latitude within the framework of his steady basic tempo, Svetlanov permits something more like lassitude, and the "tempo framework" feels conspicuous by its absence: he languishes in the slow passages, and in the quick stuff takes off like a hare with a pack of greyhounds snapping at his heels. As, in terms of sound quality, Svetlanov has the best recording but not the most detailed, so in terms of performance, Svetlanov is perhaps the most viscerally exciting but not the most sympathetic.

Is this performance considered "authentic"? If it is, then I donít go along with it. I like to imagine that those chants and arabesques are being sung by celebrants. As such they need to be phrased within the spans of human breaths. I also feel that conductors should not try to gloss over the sheer mass of Rimsky-Korsakovís scoring of some of the fast music, as though it were somehow a "tactical error" in the orchestration. It is there because the composer sought a degree of gravity in the proceedings.

Of the three, Dorati provides the most satisfying overall view. His speed for the slow introduction differs from Ansermet by a mere second. Yet, even though he rips into the fast music with great gusto, he actually takes longer than Ansermet to get through the main body of the piece! This is all down to his possibly surprising willingness to chance his arm regarding elasticity of tempo. It pays off: as well as being physically exciting, Dorati is both more involved and more involving than Svetlanov. He also gives us the most colourfully pointed performance, with some superbly clangourous percussion, adding particular poignancy to my querulous, "So where is the b****y tam-tam, then?!" That said, itís about the only foot that Dorati puts anywhere near wrong.

The Capriccio Espagnol is hardly music of the greatest philosophical import, but it is the archetypal "Concerto for Orchestra". This scintillating exploration of the colouristic capabilities of the symphony orchestra still stands head and shoulders above just about all the competition. It is beautifully crafted music, in which Rimsky-Korsakov doesnít just score brilliantly Ė loads of composers can do that! - but deploys what I think of as "strategic orchestration", from a box of neat tricks like swapping solo rôles, or creating "counterpoints of colour".

To my mind, in the Capriccio Espagnol performers simply must get two things absolutely spot-on: if they balance the colours right and put spring in the rhythms, the rest will just drop into place. Easy, isnít it? Well, no, it isnít Ė far from it, judging by the number of unsatisfactory performances Iíve heard down through the years. In fact, Iím still waiting for the one that will completely satisfy me. Both Mackerras and Dorati come pretty close, but both Ė to my supreme frustration Ė seem to miss what seem like glaringly obvious points.

There is an astonishingly close correspondence between the playing times of Doratiís recording and that of Mackerras, made all of 31 years later. The differences in seconds, [Dorati Ė Mackerras], are (1) Ė1, (2) 26, (3) Ė2, (4) 4, (5) Ė1. In other words, Dorati is fractionally more mobile in the quick movements, and substantially slower only in the songful second. Listen to Mackerras in isolation, and it all sounds wonderful. He launches the Alborada with glowing festivity, sounding full yet detailed, and with a deliciously burbling solo clarinet. Mackerrasís quicker timing for the romantic Variazioni is largely due to his setting off at a sunny andante, which he relaxes considerably when that air of tremolando mystery seeps out of the undergrowth. Unfortunately, during the andante phase the pace slackens suddenly, almost imperceptibly but damagingly. I cannot hear a join, but I am convinced that this is due to an edit.

In the Scena, plenty of freedom is given to the various soli, with the important percussion contributions all seeming in good order, and the contrasting melodic refrains of the incorporated Canto Guitano nicely pointed. Following the harp cadenza, the Canto is made to bounce along merrily, disgorging a Fandango that is at first stern then prickling with gorgeous colour. All is capped by a whirling coda. Splendid.

Iíve heard recordings that start the last track immediately after the harp cadenza, but Iím pleased to see that both Telarc and Mercury place the start of the Fandango correctly! It strikes me as odd that, as the story goes, at the workís first performance "remarkably, each of the five movements was individually encored". Remarkable indeed, when the last two run continuously. Iíd love to know the truth of the matter.

Mackerrasís recording may sound splendid yet, in spite of the intervening thirty years of unprecedented advancement in recording technology, it doesnít sound as splendid as Doratiís. That much is obvious right from the word "go". I hardly dare say this, but "itís as if a veil had been lifted from over the music"! Instead of Mackerrasís richly-textured, beefy thrust we hear a more open sound with a wider apprehensible spectral response. Details that were at best dimly perceived, like the tingling tambourine or some "strumming" pizzicato fiddles, now glitter in the sunshine. At the slower pace - and it isnít all that much slower - Doratiís Variazioni are bathed less in sunshine and more in sultry moonlight. The sound may lack the succulence of Mackerras, but Doratiís pliability makes his much the sexier interpretation.

Nor, in the Scena, do Doratiís LSO soli yield anything to their counterparts of thirty years later. However the harp, which in the Telarc recording had sounded to be entirely on its own, is here all too clearly accompanied, as it should be, by the tinkling triangle. I have to wonder: why, other than in the pursuit of "digital subtlety", has it been suppressed to the point of inaudibility by Mackerras and/or the Telarc engineers? It isnít even as though there was anything else going on that might mask it out. Not that Dorati is beyond reproach: along with Mackerras he is guilty of leaving the castanets Ė the castanets, for heavenís sake, in this of all works! Ė standing somewhere outside the stage door. Oh, you can hear them, sometimes, I suppose, but you have to strain your ears. Anyway, thatís not the point, is it?

Then, when the Canto gets swinging, Dorati keeps the bass line pulsing, so that the simple but telling "drop" on the repeat of the tune can impart its feeling of lift. Mackerras brings out this bass pulse through the timpani rather than the bass fiddles so, when the timpani cease playing, suddenly there are no "stepping-stones" on which the tune can bounce. Granted, itís a small point, but small points like this are what makes Doratiís performance, at practically the same tempi as Mackerras, so much more vivacious.

While Iím at it, thereís one other "small point". In the climax of the Canto, just before the Fandango stamps in, Rimsky-Korsakov gives the violins an unusually athletic accompanying line. Many years ago, I had an Ormandy LP containing this work, and as long as I live Iíll never forget his way with this line. Really, it had to be heard to be believed: the violins of the Philadelphia Orchestra laid into it as though they were cracking whips. It was absolutely electrifying! The thing is, this line positively cries out for this treatment, yet - other than Ormandy Ė Iíve never heard anyone really cut it loose.

Anyway, thatís entirely by the bye. As if to ram home the "vivacity" point, Doratiís management of the breathless race for the line leaves Mackerras, let me stress by comparison, sounding not much short of drawing-room prim. I may be still waiting for that "ideal" Capriccio Espagnol but, until it comes along, Iíll be happier than I am with most others with this Dorati.

What about the recordings? In short, they are well up to Mercuryís usual standard: wide stereo spread with a better-than-average depth of stage, full and warm but clear and finely detailed all the way up the frequency spectrum, and with a quite astonishing dynamic range for their age. Of course, the background hiss, as a matter of Living Presence principle, is all still there, but it is uniform and falls a long way short of unduly obtrusive. Regarding the SR90122 items, I can add that the recording sounds better than ever it did on LP, and that is saying something! On the down-side, you are now more aware than before of a few unwelcome "noises off", most notably in the first movement of Le Coq díOr. However, this was ever the case with good-quality remasterings of already good analogue materials Ė in fact, itís one way of measuring the quality of the remastering! So, donít let that put you off, eh?

All in all, this is a first-class example of Doratiís art. Occasionally a bit brusque and unbending, he was nevertheless capable of creating sensitive, idiomatic and red-blooded, or even blood-curdling, interpretations, and persuading a superb orchestra like the LSO into exceeding its own already high standards. Whatís more, as this recording demonstrates, in this sort of repertoire heís still pretty close to the top of the tree.

Paul Serotsky

 



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