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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade, Op. 35 (1888) [46:23]
Tsar Saltan: The Flight of the Bumblebee (1899-1900) [1:21]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Prince Igor: Polovtsian Dances (1869-87) [12:15]
Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Masquerade: Waltz (1941) [4:18]
Spartacus: Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia (1950-4) [9:49]
Gayaneh: Sabre Dance (1942) [2:36]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields/Neville Marriner (Tsar)
Beecham Choral Society
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham (Borodin)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Efrem Kurtz (Masquerade)
London Symphony Orchestra/Aram Khachaturian (Spartacus, Gayaneh)
recording data not given
Experience Classicsonline

When a guest conductor takes the helm of a world-class ensemble for so well-worn a piece as Scheherazade, the temptation must be great to let the orchestra coast into a kind of competent routine. So I'm glad to report that Takuo Yuasa brings a distinctive profile to his performance.

Yuasa lets the first movement unfold patiently; the tempo isn't exaggeratedly drawn out, as with Rostropovich (EMI) and Mehta/Los Angeles (Decca), yet there's a sense of heroic breadth. At the start of the second movement, the bassoon pensively explores its options; the oboe picks up the pace and tightens the rhythm just enough to get things going. In the central episode, the brass interjections are impressive, captured in deep sound. The love music flows spaciously, with the textures becoming airier as the theme repeats in a higher key. Yuasa "leans" on the dynamics to make the phrases strongly directional, and a surging, passionate impulse moves the music into its final climactic passages. Once past the slow introduction, the bouncy, dancing rhythm of the finale's main theme provides an energy that carries the movement through its diverse episodes, to the ominous tutti return of the motto theme.

The London Philharmonic responds well, and alertly, to Yuasa's leadership. The string sound emphasizes dark warmth rather than shimmer, and the brass are weighty and full-toned. Nicely done, even if it doesn't really challenge the classic Ansermet (Decca) and Stokowski (Decca, originally Phase Four) accounts, or the newercomers from Svetlanov (Melodiya and EMI) and Temirkanov (RCA).

This Scheherazade was accompanied by Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé suite on its original Eminence issue; this time around, EMI substitutes a smorgasbord of complementary items from the nooks and crannies of its back catalogue, presumably consigning the Kijé to digital limbo in the process. Marriner's Flight of the Bumblebee is pleasing: the chamber-sized orchestra allows for clarity as well as dexterity, with the "buzzing" figure always clearly registering against the pizzicatos and such, and the sound is clear and warm.

Since Beecham's Polovtsian Dances originally came in harness with his own Scheherazade - which I always liked less than I was told I should - it slips easily into place here. The performance is sparkling and colorful, gracious in the lyric passages, but almost never barbaric. The inclusion of the chorus, as in the opera, adds timbral variety; the choral sound is good, but the men and women almost come unstuck from each other in [track 8], and in the final coda the massed chorus isn't quite dead in sync with the orchestra. Oddly, the sound on this fifty-year old analog recording is markedly brighter than the digital recordings preceding it!

The three Khachaturian dances seem a "bitty" way to round off the program. The string playing is rough-edged in Kurtz's Masquerade Waltz, but the composer himself makes us appreciate his music afresh. In his hands, the fragile introduction to the Spartacus Adagio sets up the movement tenderly, the climactic tutti expansive rather than tawdry; the Sabre dance is crisp and brilliant, but not vulgar.

Stephen Francis Vasta 


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