Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)

Scheherazade op.35 (1886) [45:44]
Russian Easter Festival Overture op.36 (1887/1888) [15:33]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Dutoit
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London. 25-26 April 2010. DDD.
ONYX 4064 [61:15]

There are times when one’s heart sinks when an old friend comes along in a new recording and one wishes that something slightly out of the ordinary had been chosen for issue. Then again, there are times when an old friend comes along in a new recording and it is so very good that one welcomes it with open ears. This new disk falls into this latter category for it is superb, and a very welcome addition to the Scheherazade discography.

Charles Dutoit is the new principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and on the strength of what I have heard in the concert hall, it is going to be a good association. This disk confirms all my expectations. Scheherazade is an old friend, and a good friend too, and it is to Dutoit’s credit that he injects new life into the piece and challenges our conceptions of it. To be sure, he gives us the big virtuoso treatment, but with new ears and new insights. The opening movement - The Sea and Sinbad's Ship - has a broad sweep to it, a swagger almost, and the big tune is given ample space to sing and develop. The Story of the Kalender Prince, with its wild brass fanfares and woodwind cadenzas, is handled very well, the various episodes moulded together into a satisfying whole instead of a series of separate, and unrelated, events. The Young Prince and the Young Princess is no lovey-dovey romance, but a strong union, which ends quite jauntily. Love’s young dream, indeed. Best if all is The Festival of Bagdad - The Sea - The Ship goes to pieces on a rock surmounted by a Bronze Warrior where Dutoit pulls out all the stops and goes hell-for-leather in the most colourful account of the Festival music, and the shipwreck is marvellously catastrophic. Scheherazade’s final goodnight is meltingly beautiful. Much of the praise for the success of this performance must go to Clio Gould, leader of the RPO, as the eponymous heroine. Her playing is heart-warmingly attractive and she plays with a lyrical intensity which is quite phenomenal. Beecham’s recording with this orchestra, albeit with different personnel, is still the touchstone for recorded performances of this work, and despite being fifty years old it still sounds very good, but Dutoit comes as close as any I have heard to his brilliant account. And that’s saying something for I have always thought that the Beecham recording was without peer.

The Russian Easter Festival Overture, like Elgar’s In the South, is more of a tone poem than a concert-opener. Dutoit isn’t as dramatic as many here, but he still brings out the colour and dynamic of the music, making it sound - and here I mean in terms of orchestration - rather European. But it’s none the worse for that for Rimsky did look to the west when it came to orchestration.

The recorded sound is excellent, crystal clear and gives a broad spectrum over the whole orchestra letting all the textures sound clearly and precisely. The notes, in English and French, are good. This Scheherazade is too good to miss.

Bob Briggs

This Scheherazade is too good to miss.