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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Overture: The Tsar’s Bride (1898) [6.32]
Suite: Pan Voyevode (1904) [23.11]
Suite: Christmas Eve (1895) [27.11]
Overture on Russian Themes (1866; rev. 1880) [11.53]
Suite: The Snow Maiden (1881) [13.08]
Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra/Kees Bakels
rec. November 2004, Dewan Philharmonik Petronas Hall, Kuala Lumpur
BIS-CD-1577 [82.27]


Despite the fame and popularity of Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov was first and foremost an opera composer. At the same time he was a master of the orchestra, famous for his technical and imaginative prowess during his lifetime and in perpetuity. There can be no better way of acknowledging the nature of Rimsky’s achievement than by hearing a first-rate orchestra present the music of the operas in the concert versions made by the composer himself, in order to bring the music before a wider public.

An orchestra from Malaysia, a conductor from Holland, a composer from Russia, a recording company from Sweden: evidence of music as the world’s international language.

Kees Bakels is a conductor with a strong international pedigree. Not only has his tenure as principal conductor of the Malaysian Philharmonic raised their stature on to an international level, he also performs regularly in Europe and in Britain in particular. He has a lengthy and enduring relationship with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

The standard of playing recorded here is a tribute to both conductor and orchestra. Rimsky’s colourful orchestration always gives opportunities both corporate and individual. Ensemble is particularly disciplined. The subtle and sensitive BIS engineering is absolutely at the service of the music in allowing the dynamic range to make its mark at either end of the spectrum. In this regard it is a fascinating exercise to compare this new recording with the reissued Chandos set from Neeme Järvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (CHAN 10369 X) from twenty years ago. These vivid performances come up well, though in terms of recorded sound without quite the natural balance and bloom that the BIS engineers achieve. Both sets of performances are excellent, so too the orchestral playing. And on two CDs at an attractive price the more comprehensive Järvi collection does have its advantages.

In Bakels’s hands rhythmic vitality and melodic richness are found side by side, allowing the composer to be heard at the height of his considerable powers in conjuring the magical worlds of his three operas: Pan Voyevode, Christmas Eve and The Snow Maiden. There are memorable themes and gorgeous sounds at every turn. Rarely can music have been created that makes such a mark on first hearing. If the two overtures (The Tsar’s Bride and the Overture on Russian Themes) do not have quite the same richness and imagination, they remain thoroughly appealing.

The presentation has the usual BIS standards, though the insert notes on the opera suites are a little on the thin side. More on the music itself would have been welcome. Even so, this is an appealing and highly recommendable issue.

Terry Barfoot


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