Capriccio espagnol, op.34 (1887) [16:20]
Overture to May night (1879) [8:26]
Overture to The tsar’s bride (1898) [6:12]
Overture on Russian themes (1866/1880) [11:34]
Overture to The maid of Pskov (1872/1877/1992) [5:25]
Dubinushka, op.62 (1905) [3:49]
Russian Easter overture, op.36 (1888) [15:16
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington, USA; 4 June and 16 June 2010 (Dubinushka); 4 June, 16 June and 20 October 2010 (op.34); 16 June and 20 October 2010 (op.36); 20 October 2010 (The tsar’s bride); 20 October 2010 and 24 February 2011 (The maid of Pskov); 24 February 2011 (op.28); 9 March 2011 (May night)
NAXOS 8.572788 [67:05]

Any budding young composer will presumably have one burning question about Rimsky-Korsakov in the years 1887-1888: what exactly was he on?

After all, to produce a consecutive trio of full-scale orchestral showstoppers like Capriccio Espagnol (op.34), Scheherazade (op.35) and the Russian Easter Festival overture (op.36) in such quick succession is so utterly remarkable as to make one wonder whether the oriental stimuli that are so apparent in much of his output may have included the odd ounce or two of hashish.

We have already been treated to this same team’s recording of Scheherazade, welcomed on these pages with immense enthusiasm by my colleague Brian Reinhart (“... spectacular... world class... nothing short of spectacular” – see here). And now comes this follow-up disc, completing the trio of orchestral showpieces and throwing in quite a bit more.

Anyone who rushed out to buy the Seattle Symphony’s Scheherazade CD on the basis of Brian’s recommendation will know its undeniable and considerable virtues by now. They will therefore, I imagine, need little extra prompting to buy this new disc, on which work began less than a month after its predecessor was taped. The recordings on both discs were, in fact, all set down during Gerard Schwarz’s farewell 2010-2011 season after 26 years as the orchestra’s music director and are a fine testament to the extremely high technical and artistic standards he had achieved there.

Capriccio espagnol and Russian Easter overture may not be compositions of great depth but are both, without question, superbly crafted and highly effective musical evocations that offer a wide range of opportunities for displays of orchestral virtuosity. Rimsky himself famously recalled how rehearsals for the first performance were frequently interrupted by rounds of excited applause from the members of the orchestra. And although even musically sub-standard bands can usually whip up enough superficial colour and excitement to send an audience home happy, here we have performances on a markedly higher plane.

Capriccio gets off to an exciting start, with Schwarz’s opening foot-stamping alborada making even Evgeny Svetlanov (in the five-CD vol.30 of Warner Classics’s Édition officielle, 2564 69899-4 – not reviewed here but overlapping this set) seem rather prosaic in comparison. This new account may not lay the orchestral glitter on with a trowel as Eugene Ormandy, for one, does (in a finely played and recorded 1965 analogue account that appeared on Sony Essential Classics SBK 46537) but let’s keep in mind that the Iberian sun generates warmth, as well as light, and it is there that Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony (who seem to regard the word “orchestra” as redundant) score. Brian Reinhart picked out the wind soloists as the heroes of the Scheherazade recording and that’s once again true here, although their peers in other departments are in no way found wanting.

The three conductors whose accounts are in front of me show demonstrate fewer obvious differences in the Russian Easter (Festival) overture, though Schwarz, at 15:16, is the most deliberately paced, with Ormandy celebrating the resurrection in 14:20 and Svetlanov dashing off the rites in a terrifically exciting 14:13 (the inexcusably badly proof-read notes, sadly typical of the Warner Édition officielle, suggest that he brings it in at just 11:53!)

Largely thanks to Valery Gergiev’s programming and recording at the Mariinsky, Rimsky’s operas are seeing something of a ressurection in popularity and it is good to have three of the overtures appearing on a bargain priced CD. All are played with considerable aplomb and do a fine job of whetting one’s appetite for the full scores. There is little that Schwarz can do to enliven the rather more prosaic Overture on Russian themes, but he offers an attractive account of the composer’s orchestration of the radical student song Dubinushka. It may not supplant the old favourite Ansermet recording where thrilling thwacks on the bass drum from the Suisse Romande’s timpanist urge the radical young protesters along, but it certainly benefits from Naxos’s state of the art recording.

The label’s indefatigable Keith Anderson contributes typically useful booklet notes.

As Brian Reinhart pointed out, these Seattle Symphony recordings of Russian virtuoso showpieces are an excellent illustration of the amazingly high standards being achieved by other previously unheralded orchestras all over the globe. So what I want to know now about Schwarz and his musicians is what exactly are they on?

Rob Maynard

What I want to know now about Schwarz and his musicians is what exactly are they on?