Belkis, Queen of Sheba
Respighi began composing the music for this epic-ballet in 1931. It was one of his most ambitious stage-works. It employed an enormous orchestra including such unconventional instruments as sitars and wind-machines, off-stage brass, a chorus, several vocal soloists plus a narrator who related the legendary story in verse. The exoticism of the biblical legend of Solomon and Sheba greatly appealed to Respighi. He emulated the melodic characteristics of ancient Hebrew songs and stressed oriental rhythms with a vast assortment of native percussion instruments. Follow this hyperlink: Belkis, Regina di Saba to find fuller details of the ballet and its premiere. It makes a fascinating read - please scroll down past texts referring to other Respighi ballets.
Geoffrey Simon’s 1986 Chandos recording (CHAN 8405) won Gramophone’s Award for engineering. It was truly spectacular so this new Onyx recording has much to live up to. The movements follow the action of the ballet but the Chandos and Onyx performances interchange the two middle movements to provide overall musical and dramatic contrast. A third high definition recording, from 2001, by Eiji Oue with the Minnesota Orchestra on Reference Recordings RR-95CD, follows the original order with ‘The Dance of Belkis at Dawn’ placed as the second movement of the ballet suite.
When I reviewed the Oue recording (elsewhere) I observed that I preferred the Chandos recording both in terms of performance and sound so I will concentrate on a comparison with the Chandos and the new Onyx recordings.
Respighi’s opening movement, ‘The Dream of Solomon’ in Goetzel’s hands, is taken more slowly than Simon to reveal that little bit more nuanced detail and atmosphere. It’s all sultry languor for Solomon’s silk-strewn and dimly-lit harem before the solemn, imposing march signifying his entry to pounding drums and triumphal brass and then the sinuous, sensual love-music. Simon scores in the majesty of the imposing march episode. You really get the impression of a mighty King here and his love music is passionate enough. You are reminded that Respighi was greatly influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov in Simon’s reading. There is a real visceral thrill to Simon’s ‘War Dance’. Sounding spectacular - amazing how one is reminded of Copland here - Goetzel treads very heavily. No mistake, this is combative stuff and you can cut the Middle-Eastern flavour with a knife. Just as distinctive are those figures that reminded me of Copland in Simon’s reading. ‘The Dance of Belkis at Dawn’ contains some of Respighi’s most sensual and erotic music and Goetzel is very convincing in this respect; just listen to the fluttering and slithering woodwinds and strings. If ever a musical interpretation flirts and seduces, this one does. Simon’s Belkis is equally sexy if just that bit more restrained. Even so there is passion enough in the yearning for Solomon and the atmosphere of Sheba’s palace of luxury with its slaves and hanging gardens is delicately suggested. The final ‘Orgiastic Dance’ - in places sounding just too much like Respighi’s Roman Festivals - is another of the composer’s crash-bang showstoppers. In Simon’s hands, it is very thrilling working up to a spine-tingling climax. Goetzel’s Istanbul players serve up wild dervish-like stuff and they are that much more convincing with very persuasive exotic percussion playing. Both recordings are served by brilliant sound engineering. Simon’s acclaimed recording has stiff competition now.
(see also the Genuin recording of Belkis)
Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
Hindemith had strong links with Turkey which he visited several
times. He was invited by the Turkish government to prepare plans
for the organisation of Turkish musical life and he had some
of his music published in Istanbul. Accordingly, the Istanbul
players must have felt a sympathy and affinity for this music.
They certainly seem to relish the exoticism of this music especially
the strident and wild outbursts and the wry witticisms of the
opening Allegro that might evoke Middle-Eastern scenes
of barbarity and opulence. The ‘Turandot Scherzo’, based on
a tune from Weber’s incidental music for a play Turandot
is idiosyncratically quasi-oriental. The effect is heightened
by its raucous rhythms and striking colouring, intensified by
the prominence of percussion - especially tubular bells. The
tuba and trombone players really let themselves go here. The
quieter, tender Andantino with its soaring flute solo
has distinct Middle-Eastern flavourings too. The ‘Marsch’ movement
makes a rousing, joyful finale. I admit to having seditiously
associated this march, in my youth, with an evangelical cry
‘Come and Join Us’. This is an exuberant, uninhibited reading
of this popular work with some remarkable virtuoso playing from
all sections of the orchestra.
(Alternative recordings by Blomstedt,
Schmitt’s The Tragedy of Salome, originally written for small orchestra in 1907, was later transcribed for full orchestra in 1910 after its successful first performance. It is dedicated to Stravinsky. Based on the biblical story and a poem on that subject by Robert d’Humières, it is set on the terrace of Herod’s palace overlooking the Dead Sea. The music contrasts violent emotions and drama with dreamy introspection. Schmitt, in the early 1900s had travelled extensively in Russia, North Africa, Greece and Turkey. The opulence, exoticism and eroticism, associated with those countries, is reflected in this music which gives no ground to Respighi’s sense of colour and drama. Salome is cast in six parts: Prelude, Dance of the Pearls, The Enchantments of the Sea, Dance of Lightning and Dances of Fear (i) and (ii).
Goetzel and the Istanbul players are clearly at home with such opulent music. Their finely nuanced performance captures all the colour, enchantment and languor - and intrigue and bloody vengeance - implicit in the music. The Prelude evokes the terrace and the surrounding landscape (a cor anglais plays languidly over a background of strings, for instance); the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel is obvious but with Schmitt’s own idiosyncratic creativity. The ‘Dance of the Pearls’ is a wry essay in eroticism, teasing and sinister. ‘The Enchantments of the Sea’, portrays Herod and Herodias reflecting on their past crimes; it nods, openly, towards Debussy’s famous tone poem.
Continuing straight on is the ‘Dance of Lightning’, described elsewhere as lascivious - as Herod tears away Salome’s veils and John the Baptist covers her embarrassment only to forfeit his head. The music here is seemingly morosely introspective until a rather contained flashpoint is reached and the music segues into angry and menacing figures (especially in the lower woodwinds and horns) and the eruption of the ‘Dances of Fear’. The Istanbul players’ skill, it should be added, helps the music skate over, what must be admitted, are some patches of bathos and vulgarity. Even so, Schmitt’s music aroused a lot of controversy in his time.
Competitive Salome recordings should be considered especially the very good, bargain Apex album (first issued in 1988 then as a double in 2002) that features a soprano soloist and chorus: Sharon Sweet (soprano) and the Orchestre Philharmonique et Choeurs de Radio France conducted by Marek Janowski. Then there is the 1972 Jean Martinon recording now available as a high definition tape transfer on HDCD. Both this transfer and the Janowski album include Schmitt’s Psalm 47. (Not to forget the Hyperion Schmitt CD)
For those seeking exotic and erotic thrills this can hardly fail.
See also review
by Rob Barnett/Nick Barnard
Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra