The first thing that impresses about this release is the sound
quality: the mid-1950s mono has been restored by Pristine Audio
so well that it does not feel like mono at all. The woodwinds
are vividly colored, the orchestra has a full sound, and the
listener has a reasonable concert-hall perspective. The only
real qualm here is the lack of presence of the percussion, probably
down to inadequate equipment at the original sessions. Pristine,
and its engineers Edward Johnson and Andrew Rose, have done
such a fine job by this restoration that I really need not pull
out any of the usual reviewer clichés about “recommending this
disc if you are interested in historical recordings” or “complementing
alternatives in digital sound”.
No, I can recommend this Scheherazade to anybody. William
Steinberg was the chronically underrated conductor of the Pittsburgh
Symphony Orchestra from 1952 to 1976, and here leads it in the
earliest years of his tenure with enthusiasm. This is a straightforward
account of the fantasy which attacks all the most exciting episodes
with thrilling directness and lingers only over the most indulgent
moments. The brass is veiled behind the Pittsburgh strings in
the first few bars, but Samuel Thaviu’s rhapsodic violin work
wins our attention right back. Throughout he plays as if he
is the centerpiece of a great concerto, an approach which works
very well in Rimsky-Korsakov’s colorful, romantic sound-world.
The classic account this one most resembles is Ernest Ansermet’s
with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Indeed, Ansermet takes
43:39 to Steinberg’s 43:36, and the only truly major difference
is that Steinberg does not slow down much for the violinist’s
“epilogue”, which gets indulged as a sort of final slow movement
in some interpretations. My favorite Scheherazade does
happen to be the slowest in my collection, but the Steinberg/Thaviu
approach really surprised me by how well it works.
It seems to be very easy to do a pleasing performance of Scheherazade,
but very hard to do a great performance. Many competitors (Haitink,
Bátiz, Ormandy, and even in its way the idiosyncratic EMI Celibidache)
seem to settle for merely pretty good. This Steinberg recording
belongs, like Ansermet, a little higher up the scale: there
really is a lot to like, and no idiosyncrasies to regret. But
my favorite Scheherazade, a live recording of Evgeny
Svetlanov and the LSO on the BBC Legends label, still stands
head and shoulders and indeed torso and waist above the rest.
Svetlanov’s live take in London - very different from his Soviet
recordings elsewhere - feels huge: at a full 50 minutes, it
begins with a humongous roar from the evil sultan and proceeds
with a momentous sense of occasion and gloriously over-the-top
romantic excess. The Young Prince and Princess have never been
more madly (and erotically) in love than in that recording (for
11:54!). Still, such a performance is a rare thing indeed, and
comparing Svetlanov to anybody else is quite possibly unfair.
The coupling on this CD poses a bit of a challenge. Why is the
exotic, voluptuously romantic fairy tale Scheherazade
followed up by the shimmering, feather-light sounds of Johann
Strauss? This is especially odd because almost all of the Strauss
selections are polkas: Pizzicato, Tritsch-Tratsch, Annen, Champagne,
and Unter Donner und Blitz (Thunder and Lightning). This album
feels slightly top-heavy.
The selection itself is actually quite appealing. The Pizzicato
Polka is meant for, as one would expect, pizzicato string orchestra,
but Steinberg and the Pittsburgh players have apparently thrown
the score out the window and replaced it with one that includes
the entire orchestra! Thus we get piccolo doubling the violins,
and even some brass interjections. A thoroughly enjoyable curiosity,
then, as is the Perpetuum Mobile, which flows without pause
into the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka in another bit of creative rearrangement.
The Annen Polka is a deliciously sweet little thing, and Thunder
and Lightning makes an emphatic conclusion.
The two waltzes – Acceleration and Emperor – are marked by faster-than-normal
tempi, which works to some degree in the Emperor - although
I find that with a slower interpretation it is possible to detect
in this waltz that least Straussian of traits, pathos - but
causes a bit of trouble in Acceleration. When you start off
at a rapid clip, it’s not easy to accelerate further! Nevertheless,
for the bubbly energy of the polkas, I will most certainly be
returning to these Strauss selections many a time.
Again I will praise the transfers by Edward Johnson and re-mastering
by Andrew Rose; these performances sound in glorious mono. The
Strauss selections are performed with wit, good cheer, and,
in the re-scored works, interest for the collector. The Rimsky-Korsakov
is exciting and does the score justice, and Thaviu’s violin
solos are a real treat. Liner notes are available online to
complement the conductor biography provided with the CD, which
is simply Steinberg’s Wikipedia page. Most consumers will be
purchasing the recordings via digital download, anyway. If the
coupling suits you, invest with confidence.