This may not be an essential Scheherazade, but it is a very
good one. Vladimir Ashkenazy certainly knows how this music
should go. His is an idiomatic and balanced interpretation
of Rimsky-Korsakov's score. This is not a Stokowskian
swoon fest, nor a precision powerhouse performance like Reiner’s.
It is does not surge with the high octane of Svetlanov,
nor is it ablaze with the passion of Kondrashin – the latter’s
performance with the Concertgebouw (Philips 454 550-2) is my
benchmark. It is, however, a colourful and highly enjoyable
account played by a virtuoso orchestra on top form.
One of the great assets of this recording is Christopher Warren-Green's
expressive portrait of the young sultana. Krebbers for Kondrashin
is more sweetly seductive, but Warren-Green finds an extra dimension
to Scheherazade’s character. His light and shade throughout
bring out both her sensuous story telling and her trepidation.
For example, he gives his arpeggios at about 6:40 into the third
movement and elsewhere a rhetorical quality, as if Scheherazade's
mind is racing between spoken thoughts. He is also perfectly
balanced, with his solo lines emerging naturally from within
the orchestra rather than being spotlit up front.
The opening bars of The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship are portentous.
Tender woodwind chords follow to open the way for the violin's
first entrance. The rocking motion of the lower strings is
almost languid, but energetic playing from the violins keeps
the sense of adventure. Delicate contributions from the solo
winds and horn perfume the air. Ashkenazy maintains the momentum
well, though he has a tendency to broaden the tempo here and
especially in climaxes of the concluding movement.
The central movements are beautifully done. The Story of the Kalandar
Prince opens with a lesson in understated eroticism before
building in mystery. The brass playing in the suspense music
at about 4:00 works beautifully, though there is a slight sag
in tension in the following transition. In The Young Prince
and Princess Ashkenazy balances languor with smoulder.
The excitement and controlled panic at the opening of the final
movement melt into and out of more lyrical passages. You can
hear the origins of Respighi’s Feste Romane in the market
scenes at the opening of this movement. The tempest and shipwreck
are effective, though they sound like they are happening in
slow motion – Ashkenazy could move more here. The final bars,
though, are simply gorgeous.
The Philharmonia Orchestra, the most Russian sounding of London's bands,
gives Ashkenazy everything he asks for. The brass in particular
are spectacular. The solo trumpet in the third movement is
proud and clear and his rapid tonguing in the fourth movement
The suite from The Tale of Tsar Saltan, comprising the preludes
to Acts I, II and IV of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera of the same
name, is a charming and atmospheric coupling. This is colourful
music in a folksy fairytale way, and is again very well played.
Each prelude opens with a trumpet fanfare, but their moods contrast
nicely. The central movement is darker-hued and more dangerous
than its companions, and the vivid thwack of the bass drum in
the celebratory final movement will make you jump.
The Flight of the Bumblebee, also from
The Tale of Tsar Saltan, makes an odd and anticlimactic
encore, lightly and brightly dispatched though it is. If its
inclusion was mandatory it would have been better placed between
the two suites.
Decca’s digital sound is warm and leaves space around the orchestra.
The balance is excellent, with the keening high violin lines never
too forward in Scheherazade, the winds prominent but not
overly so and the brass cutting through beneath their colleagues
rather than overpowering them.