Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade: Symphonic Suite, Op 35 [45:34]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Night on Bald Mountain (Rimsky-Korsakov version) [11:07]
Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Excerpts from Gayane [51:57]
Czech Philharmonic/Zdenek Chalabala
rec. 29-30 September and 2 October, 1953 (Khachaturian); 7-9 December, 1953 (Rimsky); 23 November, 1955 (Mussorgsky); Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic
SUPRAPHON SU 4094-2 [56:41 + 51:57]
Of all the great Czech conductors of the past century - Talich, Kubelík, Ančerl, Neumann - Zdenek Chalabala is probably the most overlooked. There’s no reason for this; he’s an extraordinary colorist and this two-CD set presents an opportunity for more listeners to make his acquaintance. Chalabala excelled in music like this: exciting, vividly orchestrated and lavishly romantic. Everything here is superb.
Scheherazade leaps out of the speakers, or leaps as far as a mono recording can. The sharp opening blast yields to a pliant, rhapsodic, utterly lovely violin solo by a player who’s unnamed in the booklet. This begins a classic account which was once the exclusive property of hardcore collectors who bragged to each other about their good fortune in finding a copy of the Chalabala reading. We’re lucky to have it released widely like this: the opening movement rocks with oceanic drama, and the Calendar Prince sallies forth in a blaze of glory - note the very Czech tone of the central clarinet solo. This episode finishes with a climax that would make any conductor of today proud. You can even hear the piccolo! The third-movement love story is told with unusual expansiveness (11:33), occasional violin portamenti, and unusually rustic-sounding percussion. Only after 9:45 do things briefly feel a little rushed; maybe the lovers’ passion has got the best of them. The final movement is as good as it gets, the ending a perfect calm; it’s a classic reading, for sure.
The Czech Philharmonic winds bring their unique colors to the Rimsky-Korsakov version of Night on Bare Mountain. It’s one of those technicolor pieces where you regret the thinness of the timpani presence, but other than that the orchestra’s vibrancy is well-preserved - along with a bit of a problem with the violins keeping together at 4:53. Chalabala doesn’t treat the piece like a race-track, but he also maintains sharp rhythms and accents which make this a very good reading.
The second CD presents nearly an hour of highlights from Khachaturian’s ballet Gayane, including the most famous bits (Sabre Dance, Gayane’s Adagio, Gopak) and some which are more obscure (a ten-minute scene called Gayane and Giko). The Czech Philharmonic’s playing is superb throughout, indeed impossible to fault, while Chalabala’s leadership shapes this as legitimate ballet music rather than a collection of loud, vulgar party tunes. The only possible qualm is with the ordering of the excerpts; Gayane’s Adagio, which is my favorite part of the piece, and which is paced flawlessly here, is something I would have saved for near the end, while the Lezghinka would have made a more rousing finale than the excellently playedAisha’s Awakening.
All throughout, the digitally restored mono sound is excellent. It hails from 1953-1955 and is the kind of mono which is really just as good as some of the first stereo efforts. There are certainly no caveats necessary about acoustics, which in music as colorful as this comes as quite a relief. The booklet includes a brief but welcome biography of Chalabala, whose Dvorák symphonic poems really deserve reissue as well. Until those come along - please, Supraphon, please! - do enjoy this two-disc set. It’s a total delight and outstanding testimony to one of the century’s most overlooked conductors.
Chalabala remains the least-known of the great Czech conductors, but this two disc introduction shows him at his absolute finest. Top-rank.
Masterwork Index: Scheherazade