Nikolay RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Sheherazade, Op.35 (1887-88) [45:52]
The Tale of Tsar Saltan Suite, Op.57 (1899) [20:46]
Flight of the Bumblebee, from The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1899) [1:31]
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. May-June 2010, Benaroya Hall, Seattle. DDD
NAXOS 8.572693 [66:36]

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 Symphony No.2.

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 Sinbadís 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 Ė 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 Sinbadís 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. Thatís the source of Tsar Saltan. The music was extracted from Rimskyís opera written in 1899, on the subject from one of Pushkinís fairytale poems.

The first movement depicts The Tsarís 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 Sinbadís ship, though now without that delight. The water is dripping, and the Tsarina laments her fate. Toward the end the sea becomes more benevolent Ė 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 donít 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 Ö 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 Larionoffís 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 canít say if this is the best Sheherazade ever Ė I havenít heard them all, and tastes differ. However if Iím asked for my pick, this will be it. Itís the best one Iíve heard.

Oleg Ledeniov

The best Sheherazade Iíve heard.

see also review by Brian Reinhart (March 2011 Bargain of the Month)