you're in the mood for a Russian symphony - not a cosmopolitan
score in the Tchaikovsky manner, but nationalist and brimming
with gorgeous tunes and extrovert Russian spirit - the Rimsky-Korsakov
Third will do nicely. There's mystery and magic here, which
combines the glorious melodic gift of Scheherazade with
the sense of fantasy of the Kitezh music. After a searching
Moderato assai introduction, the opening Allegro
has an airborne lift, and its clarinet and oboe themes relax
and sing. A whimsical Scherzo in 5/8 time - Borodin liked
this meter, too - dominated by delicate woodwind writing, sounds
like a Russian Mendelssohn, but the tuttis have a stronger
profile. The tender, lyrical Andante expands to encompass
disturbed emotions before resolving, attacca, into a
vigorous, energetic finale.
Bakels leads a glowing performance, in which the nostalgic,
folk-based themes are permitted to unfold and breathe naturally.
As in so many recent recordings, the principal clarinetist walks
away with the expressive honours - bringing an almost aching
beauty to the first-movement recapitulation - but the oboe offers
some poignant moments as well. The Malaysian Philharmonic strings
don't produce the warm, lush sounds of, say, the LSO, but they
play with good discipline and shape their lyrical themes sensitively.
First Symphony ought to have the same appeal. There's
plenty of vivid orchestral color, some "shaggy" chromatic
progressions, and, in the scherzo, a fine rhythmic alertness.
Yet the music doesn't grab you the same way. A shortage of memorable
melodies is a problem here. For Rimsky, as for Beethoven, the
sort of short, rhythmic motifs that lend themselves to symphonic
development don't necessarily make the best tunes, no matter
how brilliantly garbed. Bakels' stewardship, too, seems less
effective in this piece. He makes the most of the score's dynamic
contrasts, but he maintains the tempi rather rigidly. You'd
think such an approach would help hold the score together, but
it serves instead to underline the more conventional aspects
of the writing while inhibiting expression. The first movement's
delicious clarinet theme, for example, feels reined-in. I have
not heard the old Boris Khaikin performance, available Stateside
on a Melodiya/Angel LP, in many years, but I remember it as
being more colorful, earthier and less constrained.
Fantasia on Serbian Themes, too, betrays Bakels' lack
of sympathy with the style. The melodies - apparently authentic
Serbian themes, mostly supplied by Balakirev - register well
enough, but in the coda the conductor screws up the intensity
to a frenetic level, for a hasty, unsatisfying close. The Naxos
performance (8.553858) under Igor Golovchin rambles a bit, but,
as the timing of 8:19 (compared to Bakels's 6:46) might suggest,
it's freer to make an effect.
provides the customary audiophile-quality sound. Note the clean,
luminous woodwind reproduction in the trio of the First Symphony's
scherzo. Recommended for the Third Symphony.
Stephen Francis Vasta