Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Shéhérazade Op.35 (1888) [46:37]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Polovtsian Dances – Prince Igor (1869-1887) [12:07]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
A Night on the Bare Mountain (1867) [12:22]
Choeur de l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo
Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo/Yakov Kreizberg
rec. L’Auditorium Rainier III, Monte-Carlo, 28 January, 2 February 2010 (Shéhérazade), 2 February 2010 (Polovtsian Dances), 26 February 2010 (A Night on the Bare Mountain)
OPMC CLASSICS OPMC 003 [61:06]
The Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo is the latest group to jump on the ‘own-label’ bandwagon. This disc is the third release in what is proving to be a coherent and well-presented sequence of discs. Initially at least there is a through-thread of programming music used by Serge Diaghilev for his revolutionary Ballets Russes. There is a secondary link in that after Diaghilev’s untimely death in 1929 some of his company formed the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo although by then all of the iconic works associated with the company had already been created. Rather neatly, the works so far released also represent cornerstones of a modern orchestra’s virtuoso repertoire. We have a good opportunity to gauge the ‘health’ of the current batch of Monte-Carlo players. In light of the good reviews I bought the first release – a two-disc set of the three most famous Stravinsky ballets plus Pulcinella. I have not heard their version of Daphnis et Chloe which occupied volume 2. There is added poignancy in that these discs, while representing the orchestra’s return to the catalogue, also act as a memorial to their principal conductor Yakov Kreizberg who died at the age of 51 earlier this year.
None of the works here were conceived by their composers as ballet. Indeed shorn of their Ballet Russes link this could be seen simply as a programme of Russian ‘Pops’. I would have thought it unlikely that most collectors visiting this site would not have to consider at least some repertoire duplication if they wished to purchase this disc. Does it merit such duplication? As ever it is very hard to give a simple yes or no answer. Before making any comparisons I would like to dwell on the disc’s intrinsic virtues. On every level this is a very well produced disc right down to the packaging. This favours the gatefold style with liner-note held in a slit on the left hand side. There is a sophisticated but quirky stylishness at work here - echoing the earlier releases - which I like. There are no fewer than four photographs of the full orchestra and two of the conductor. The engineering and production of the disc exude a similar understated quality. Producer Tim Oldham is a familiar name from a host of major label releases. Together with engineer Sylvain Denis they have produced a CD with an impressively natural but detailed perspective. This is patently not the deliberately sonic-spectacular style of recording often preferred for such orchestral showpieces. Do not for an instant imagine that the recording lacks anything in dynamic range or clarity of texture. It is not clear from the liner-note or indeed the orchestra’s website if these are live recordings or recorded at dedicated sessions – certainly the immaculate silence and playing would imply the latter.
I seem to go through phases with certain works. Recently I returned to Shéhérazade picking up famous versions from Silvestri and his beloved Bournemouth SO, Svetlanov and his EMI/LSO remake, the cinematic Stokowski in the famous Decca Phase4/LSO version re-released on Cala and the volcanic Reiner in Chicago. All these famed versions can be found on-line at near to bargain price. These now sit alongside the Mackerras/LSO and Tjeknavorian/LSO as well as others. In its own right the new disc is very fine – concert-master David Lefèvre plays the eponymous heroine’s solos with a gloriously sensual languor that is the equal of any performance I have heard. Individual listeners will have to decide whether they like the slightly low-key approach. Clearly Kreizberg relishes the lyrical beauty of the score; no real surprise since Rimsky-Korsakov writes beautiful tunes. The orchestra are technically untroubled by the difficulties the score presents. Personally, I find this version all just a tad too dapper and unruffled. Interestingly, that was exactly my response to their Rite of Spring mentioned above as part of OPMC 001 – I’m not sure I have ever heard the work sound so easy…. but I am not sure it should! Returning to the current piece; I do like the fact that the orchestra has a distinctly Gallic sonority; try the horn solo around 3:40 into track 1. This has all the characteristics of older style narrow-bore horns. The woodwind in particular are impressively characterful. The natural acoustic allows the brass choir to integrate into the orchestral picture without the spotlighting beloved of some recording companies. Since this approach is clearly at one with Kreizberg’s own the result is thoroughly organic. To the point where I began to feel a bit guilty about enjoying the thunder and bluster of other recordings as being all a bit too obvious. One little curio, the second movement is played immediately after the second with no break at all. Again, the wind and string soloists shine and the opening sections are impressive in their expressive beauty. Once again I find the central compound rhythm march to be strong on pointed-rhythm and finesse but light on drama. By ironing out some of these extremes Kreizberg skilfully negotiates what can sound like a very episodic movement. This is the point at which you realise that Kreizberg’s vision is diametrically opposite to that of Stokowski with most other conductors lying somewhere in between. The third movement – The young Prince and the young Princess - is the highlight of the performance with the Monte-Carlo strings perfectly attuned to Kreizberg’s subtle song-like rubato. The string tone is warm and rich without being overcooked – ideally suited to one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s most beguiling melodies. The acoustic of the L’Auditorium Rainier III supports the players to perfection. The pert woodwind dance that follows is a similar delight – the chirpy clarinet full of bright-eyed personality. Again, Kreizberg shows great skill in negotiating the various tempo transitions with minimum fuss but convincing through-line. The engineering impresses once more with delicious harp detail audible through the texture without resorting to synthetic highlighting. The climax of the movement is rich and full. In the finale Kreizberg is no slouch, clocking in at 13:15 but this is a movement where I feel the measured approach pays fewer dividends. That said, all the virtues displayed earlier of clarity, control and finesse are still apparent. Individuals will need to decide if they feel they are appropriate. The epic moment of the boat being wrecked is powerful and the sound well integrated but I do want something more neighbour-annoyingly apocalyptic. Tjeknavorian and the LSO trombones and bass drum thrash the piece mercilessly here and I love it. However, the return to the closing violin solo is superbly managed and Lefèvre gives us a final example of his poised and supremely beautiful playing. How refreshing to discover a performance of such a standard work that challenges one’s preconceptions with such refinement and understated skill. This will not replace the thrill-seeker performances I enjoy so much but at the same time it will take an honoured place as an interpretation of real worth.
Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances present twelve minutes of as pure melodic invention as you are ever likely to meet. They are presented here in the choral version with the Chorus of the Monte-Carlo Opera proving to be adequate but unexceptional. They are (believably) set back behind the orchestra but that deprives them of some bite and the mezzos in particular are rather matronly. Kreizberg’s interpretation is more conventionally middle-of-the-road; perfectly acceptable but lacking the subtle insights that so mark the preceding work. Tempi again veer towards the steady which detracts from the wild folk-dance element that surely Borodin sought to emulate. Tjeknavorian, this time on RCA with the National Philharmonic Orchestra, again manages to whip-up playing of intoxicating fervour that makes the nice folk of Monte Carlo seem rather gentle in comparison. The programme is completed with Mussorgsky’s ever-popular A Night on the bare Mountain. Both this work and the Borodin are given in the ‘standard’ Rimsky-Korsakov editions/completions. The Mussorgsky receives a good ‘standard’ performance to boot. It has never been a favourite work so I have rarely been much moved by it. Kreizberg, his orchestra and recording team do all that they can. I admire the care with which instrumental details gleam through and the care that has been taken co-ordinating the articulation of the brass and wind unison writing. But this is admiration that comes from the head rather than the heart – though at no fault of any one person present.
Ultimately a disc that reflects great credit on all involved with a Shéhérazade of considerable stature. There is a particular picture of Kreizberg in the liner conducting the orchestra clearly in total control and beaming from ear to ear. It is a lovely image - a treasured family memento I’m sure - and one that somehow conveys his love of making music. This is the quality I take from this disc; cherished music receiving loving performances.
Cherished music receiving loving performances.