Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade [43:36]
Johann STRAUSS Jr (1825-1899)
Acceleration Waltz [7:12]
Pizzicato Polka [2:24]
Perpetuum Mobile [2:30]
Tritsch-Tratsch Polka [2:28]
The Emperor Waltz [9:53]
Annen Polka [2:59]
Champagne Polka [1:53]
Thunder and Lightning Polka [2:48]
Samuel Thaviu (violin)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/William Steinberg
rec. 11 January 1955 (Rimsky) and 11 February 1953 (Strauss), Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

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.

Brian Reinhart

If the coupling suits you, have no fear about these marvelously restored recordings.