Rimsky-Korsakov was one of those composers who were expert
in how to say something but did not always know what
to say. That said, his most popular work deserves its fame.
In Sheherazade his invention was at its peak, and was
supported by a unique mastery of orchestration. It is officially
a suite, but due to its proportions and structure could just
as well be called a symphony. After all, its brother Antar,
with a similar program, was designated by the composer as his
The story is based on The Book of 1001 Nights. We hear
some of the tales that Sheherazade told the stern Sultan Shakhriar.
The music opens with dialogue between the powerful, angry bass
of the Sultan and the sweet arabesque of the violin, impersonating
the storyteller herself. These two voices reappear later in
the course of the suite, as Sheherazade introduces her new stories.
The first movement is a vivid picture of the open sea that carries
the ship of Sinbad the Sailor. Rimsky-Korsakov, a naval officer
himself, certainly knew the subject well. His orchestral skill
is on full display: one can almost see the foam torn by the
wind off the wave-tops, hear the roaring depths beneath. In
the quiet moments, the Sea is beautiful and inviting, its lulling
and rocking motion is tender. The colours here and in the following
parts are Oriental: this is the Sea seen through Sinbad’s eyes.
The second movement is a kind of orchestral ballad. It starts
with the solo woodwinds narrating their sad story over the strumming
accompaniment of a harp. This story is all hostility, galloping
horses, fierce battles and clashing swords. The gloomy mood
is dispersed in the third movement, which tells of happy love.
It is subtitled The Young Prince and the Princess. The
music is built on two themes. The first is sensual and calm
– probably, depicting the Prince. The second is playful and
happy: probably, the Princess. This dancing theme is sprinkled
with little bells and dotted rhythms.
In the last interlude between the Sultan and Sheherazade, the
ruler is already in a better mood, and is impatient to hear
what happens next. The finale starts with the bustling noise
of the Festival in Baghdad. Amid the swirling crowds
we see familiar faces from the previous parts. All of a sudden,
we are back in the wide sea, aboard Sinbad’s ship. The sea is
full of scary fascination, and the storm carries us to a magnificent
shipwreck on the Magnet Rock. There is a return to calm, and
the sweet voice of Sheherazade rises in the air for the last
time over the pacific murmurs of the tamed Sultan.
And from Sultan to Saltan. Like many composers of his generation,
Rimsky-Korsakov quenched his thirst for the Exotic in the Orient.
He was also Number One in the painted hall of Russian musical
fairytale. That’s the source of Tsar Saltan. The music
was extracted from Rimsky’s opera written in 1899, on the subject
from one of Pushkin’s fairytale poems.
The first movement depicts The Tsar’s Farewell and Departure
and is a bouncy march. Were it slower, it could be called solemn;
as it is, it has a not-so-serious, almost comic air, like the
Russian version of the Radetzky March. After all, the tale is
for children. The second movement is entitled The Tsarina
in a Barrel at Sea - yes, such things do happen sometimes.
The Tsarina is definitely not happy about the situation. We
hear the voice of the sea, similar to the waves that carried
Sinbad’s ship, though now without that delight. The water is
dripping, and the Tsarina laments her fate. Toward the end the
sea becomes more benevolent – apparently, bringing the barrel
to the shore.
In the last movement we see the three wonders of the magical
city of Ledenets (no relation). First, the wonderful squirrel
sings a merry song while crunching nuts made of gold and emeralds.
Then, 33 mighty warriors emerge from the sea to guard the city.
Finally we hear the lush, enchanting music of the beautiful
Swan-Princess. The episodes are prefaced and separated by fanfares,
and the sequence ends in a glittering coda.
From the same opera comes the famous Flight of the Bumblebee.
It is a short and effective encore, and should be considered
as such. Feel free to skip it if you don’t want to lose the
enchanted mood of the Suite.
Once I had a quest for the perfect Sheherazade. I heard
quite a few, famous and not so famous, from Beecham to Gergiev.
They all missed something, here or there. They were either too
down-to-earth or too ephemeral, too lethargic or too brisk.
At least, they all urged me to continue looking. Finally, I
found the 1948 Ansermet with Paris Conservatoire Orchestra,
and it became my Sheherazade, powerful and beautiful,
wildly energetic yet light. But the sound quality there was
… well, not a match for the playing. In this new recording I
hear all the good of Ansermet, and more. It is even more powerful,
even more beautiful. Decisions as to tempo are just perfect,
and each phrase grabs the listener. Maria Larionoff’s violin
conveys the character of the storyteller: sweet and slender,
yet very smart. The orchestra dazzles. The recording quality
is excellent. You find yourself in the middle of the sea, the
battle, the festive crowds. I can’t say if this is the best
Sheherazade ever – I haven’t heard them all, and tastes
differ. However if I’m asked for my pick, this will be it. It’s
the best one I’ve heard.
see also review by Brian
Reinhart (March 2011 Bargain of the Month)