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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 1 (1865/1884) [25:18]
Fantasia on Serbian Themes, Op. 6 (1867/1887) [6:46]
Symphony No. 3 in C, Op. 32 (1874/1886) [33:51]
Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra/Kees Bakels
rec. Dewan Filhamonik Petronas Hall, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, November 2002
BIS BIS-CD-1477 [66:48] 


If 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.

Kees 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Bis 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 



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