Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
rec. AAD, ADD, DDD
full contents list at end of review
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94369 [25 CDs: c. 27:00:00]
Brilliant Classics will not be shaken from their big box approach; nor should they be. Here is another ambitious production. They have massively extended a 4-CD Rimsky orchestral set (review) that they issued more than a decade ago and made of it a unique companion to their valuable Strauss and Tchaikovsky Editions. The Tchaikovsky was notable among other things for being populated with several historic alternative recordings of key works such as the Violin Concerto. That has now re-emerged shorn of the historical alternatives on 94650.
This Rimsky box gives us some of the same pattern that arched over that first Tchaikovsky box. CD25 produces alternative historical recordings of the rather dour Symphony No. 3 and a possessed, wild and woolly Scheherazade. Add to this five discs of the orchestral music, three setting out the songs, one each of the chamber music and the cantatas and the remainder of the discs offering up seven of the operas. It’s not the complete works nor does it claim to be. More than a few of the operas are missing, as are the brass band concertante works once rapturously done on EMI Melodiya LPs. However it is the only single box set of Rimsky’s music - in all genres - in the catalogue. It will take some beating, although as usual individual works can be bettered in more than a few cases. We should not forget the Rimsky opera editions from Capriccio (Sofia and Cologne) and Decca (Gergiev: five operas, 11 CDs, Decca Collectors Edition 4782705).
The music on the first four CDs in this box comes from Sanctuary Classics - first issued on the now-defunct ASV label. Loris Tjeknavorian was their star-turn though here his baton is supplemented with that of Yondani Butt - more recently heard on Nimbus. I rather hope that Brilliant will also produce a Khachaturian Edition sourced from Tjeknavorian’s extensive Armenian Phil recordings for ASV.
Tjeknavorian's Scheherazade is a pleasurable listen but is not as rhythmically pointed or as gripping as say Svetlanov, Stokowski, Beecham, Ormandy or Serebrier. The Festival of Baghdad - The Sea movement is much better - listen to the cracking pace at 6.55 in track 4, the raw blare of the horns and the aggressive bass-drum thud. High points include solo work that exudes character.
I knew Sadko first as the full Melodiya-recorded opera in one of those sturdy battered and evil-smelling LP boxes you could find at Colletts on Charing Cross Road. Later its orchestral epitome was one of the works on David Lloyd-Jones’ Philips Universo LP. It is a rhapsodic fantasy built from concepts in Rimsky's supernatural oceanic opera - sadly missing from this Edition. The inspiration is a notch or three down from the Russian Easter Festival but it certainly deserves a place alongside the better Liszt tone poems and Von Bülow's Nirvana. The recording makes the orchestral sound rather glaring at forte and above. The Song of India (again Sadko) is crushingly seductive.
Also from those Tjeknavorian Yerevan sessions comes a whole disc of suites from the Rimsky operas. The Golden Cockerel opera dates from 1907. The suite is full of colourful allusions and the linkage with Stravinsky's Firebird and Nightingale as well as with the satirical operas of Prokofiev - principally the much later The Love of Three Oranges - is patent. Those strident trumpets right at the start set the pace and atmosphere. The Queen Semakha movement ripples and shivers with melodic magic and if you like Ippolitov-Ivanov's Procession of the Sardar you will appreciate this music. The old Ormandy recording of the suite - on Sony Essential Classics - is still a strong contender but this is much brighter and clearer, though the Armenians strive for the sleek Philadelphian tone. The tri-partite Tsar Saltan suite (1900) is cheerful and vaingloriously racy. In the movement depicting The Tsarina in a barrel at sea we are returned to the glittering realms of Sadko. The flighty Bumble-Bee is painted with brilliance and pace. In the Christmas Eve suite one can hear where the young Bax derived much of his inspiration for the earliest tone poems and for Spring Fire - just listen to 1.23 in track 9 and the start of the Games and Dances movement. The opera has the same plot-line as Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki.
The next two discs are built around Rimsky's three symphonies with the Fairy-Tale and the Overture on Russian Themes filling out the disc with the Third Symphony. The orchestra is the LSO, except in the case of the Overture where the Philharmonia do the honours. The conductor for these is Yondani Butt who also recorded a smattering of the Glazunov symphonies for ASV. The Overture is not well known. It is a divertissement on folk themes but is not the equal of Balakirev's similar titled work. Fairy-Tale (Skazka in the original) might easily apply as a description to any of the non-symphonic works. The Third Symphony is smoothly and unexceptionably structured. A subtle, unassertive Brahmsian song plays like limelight through the first movement. The Glazunov-style chatter of the second movement is followed by an accented woodwind figure later to be developed as the Dodon fanfare for The Golden Cockerel music. That said, the Third Symphony struggles against leaden-booted inspiration - a tough proposition for any conductor.
While the overture to The Tsar's Bride (1899) ends on submissive calls from the woodwind its earlier episodes are full of tension and tragedy; a Russian echo of other concert overtures: Schumann's Julius Caesar and Mendelssohn's Ruy Blas. The Serbian Fantasia is earlyish and comes from a couple of years after the First Symphony.
The First Symphony predates Tchaikovsky's First by a couple of years. It has the authentic Russian nationalist character and while it flirts with quite a few Schumann-like gestures it is not shackled to Germanic manners, unlike the Rubinstein symphonies. The finale had me thinking of a much finer work, Parry's First Symphony - fierily recorded by the English SO conducted by William Boughton on a Nimbus CD. This work is again given a zestful spin. It blazes in the last five minutes.
The real discovery comes with a work I encountered more than three decades ago from an old EMI-Melodiya LP (Moscow Radio SO/Ivanov ASD 2974): the Antar Symphony. If we ignore Sheherazade it is the freshest, most brazenly imaginative, most violent and sensual of all the works in this set. The recording does it justice being lively and sounding front-to-back deep, as well as with a wide soundstage. The brass ‘barks’ at 4.10 illustrate what I mean. The woodwind are highlighted to some degree but not quite so much as in the glorious Melodiya recording, still languishing in vinyl purgatory. Where Ivanov wins over Butt is in affection though he fares better in the third movement Allegro.
CD 5 might as well be considered in the same breath as CD 25; both offer up historical recordings. There’s first a potently atmospheric and fantastical Mravinsky-directed Legend of Kitezh suite from 1949. The pantheistic avian sounds of the Prelude evoke memories of both Bax and Ravel. The supernatural shudders in when we get to The Battle of Kersenets but the crowning picture comes with the sweeping writing of The death of Fevronya. It looks forward to Sibelius (track4, 3.10). The 1960 Svetlanov-conducted Pan Voyevoda suite is in five movements. There’s a glowing introduction, wild hoedown of a Krakowiak, a crooning and sentimental Nocturne, a heavy-booted yet quick tempo mazurka and a raucous trumpet-decorated Polonaise. The compact 1951 Richter Piano Concerto sounds older than the Kitezh suite despite being two years younger. Richter gives this rather staid work the most convincing piece of advocacy. There are some good moments as in the start of the peaceful middle movement. This recording of what amounts to a pocket piano concerto, in just short of quarter of an hour, ends with applause.
Let’s then move forwards to CD 25 which like CD 5 operates as a sort of historical appendix to the main sequence. Everything here and on CD 5 is very cleanly presented - scrubbed up well with only the Richter Concerto resisting complete redemption. Whatever you may think of the Third Symphony you will know my view. It is a plodding piece with a rather academic patina and substance. Rozhdestvensky in 1962 did what he could with it but it never really takes wing. It has its moments of jollity but there’s hardly a glimmer of the exultant jest or zest of Antar. The Glazunov-like acceleration in the first movement and the Russian Easter celebrations of the finale go in the right direction but fail to connect. Perhaps the best moment is the liquid horn solo in the Andante with its wonderfully liquid tone.
At the other extreme comes an invigoratingly possessed Scheherazade from Nikolai Golovanov. Unless you really cannot abide old vintage sound, Soviet style playing and some distortion then this is one of the crowns of the set. It’s virile, thunderous, majestically swelling and stompingly accented. The performance is enhanced by David Oistrakh’s sultry-skittish and inveigling temptress and story spinner. The original engineers had no hesitation in homing in closely on the Oistrakh front desk. Historically fascinating, then, and de rigueur for fans of Oistrakh, Golovanov and the far from faceless orchestral traditions of the USSR. They are beginning to fade into the realms of audio-archaeology; more’s the pity. One thing is for sure: you could never call this faceless. There’s an even cleaner processed CD of this Scheherazade on a long-remaindered Boheme disc (review).
CD 6 proffers a classic version of the Piano Trio completed by Rimsky’s son-in-law in 1939 but recorded in 1952. A bit like the Borodin chamber music on another Brilliant Classics box this is not easily recognisable as Rimsky unless we count the sturdy ‘ordinariness’ of the Third Symphony. Played by the aristocracy of the Soviet musical world - Oistrakh, Knushevitsky and Oborin, it is more parlour sentimental Mendelssohn than anything else. The 25 minute Piano Quintet with pianist Felicja Blumental and four very distinguished principals from the New Philharmonia is somewhat better with Nicolas Busch’s horn very much to the fore in the eloquence of the central Schumann-like Andante. By the way, the bassoonist is Gwydion Brooke (not Brook).
CDs 7-9 treat us to 77 songs. A number stand out in this crowd. Try the dark storm- clouds of The Pine and the Palm as sung by Marina Choutova: steady, unwavering and Luonnotar-like. Mikhail Lanskoi's For the shores of my native land to words by Pushkin is a concentrate of yearning and imploring. Sergei Baikov - a real lyric bass - sings When the golden cornfield waves to words by Lermontov. He returns later for the hurtling onslaught of The sea is tossing to a poem by AK Tolstoy. The pianist Ilya Scheps distinguishes himself as across all three discs but I must not forget to mention Natalia Gerasimova who sings one of the longer songs at 4:25 and ends with the sort of exalted operatic elevation of which Puccini would have been proud. Very rewarding and such a pity that there are no printed words or translations with the set. These three discs are available separately as 93971.
Disc 10 leads us to Rimsky’s four cantatas. The first and shortest, at 5:42, is Poem about Aleksey with its clear indebtedness to orthodox chant. The singing is burnished with haughty fervour but curves down to a final peaceful asseveration. Echoes here of Rimsky’s Russian Easter festival overture.
The Song of Oleg the Wise has the same stern and exciting conviction ablaze. We are in the world of the doughty knights of pagan Russia. It’s all desperately serious - crusaders indeed with stirring fibrous music-making amid all those rolling, rasping and abrasive consonants.
From Homer launches with a confident and bubbling massed brass band effect. This reminds us that the brass band works are missing from this box. The cantata, written close to the miraculous year in which Scheherazade appeared, is a strong piece with angular and eruptive figures in brass and woodwind. It’s all a bit Wagnerian but that final glow takes us close to the world of Scheherazade.
Switezianka is a more smoothly caramelized piece - smooth in its contours like Othmar Schoeck but more upbeat and joyous. It’s more of an operatic scena with some expressive singing from the two soloists. I noted the lovely harp patterning at 7:30.
These four can be compared to the Sibelius cantatas and not the academic ones.
The remaining fourteen discs are given over to seven operas. Among the recordings here are two by Stoyan Angelov with the Bulgarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and one each by Alexander Lazarev with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and Dimiter Manolov and the Sofia National Opera Orchestra.
May Night has been reviewed here before. It is conducted by Chistiakov who nicely encapsulates the bubbling folk energy of this Gogol-based opera. There’s a vibrant chorus to match and if Vitaly Taraschenko is a little strained at the top of his range this does nothing to tarnish the charms of what amounts to the Russian equivalent of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride.
The Bulgarian Snow Maiden - ten years or so older - takes us into more supernatural regions. The sinuous sway of Where are those lovely lands of sunshine links with the great works of the Scheherazade years. While the carnival processions (CD13, track 3) look to the folk festivals of May Night. Tsarist hymns and jollity are mixed with reverence or joy in regality. In general the choir plays a notable part with their glowing waves of tone showing real mastery often as a commanding backdrop to the soloists magnificently belting it out. This is available separately as 94036.
Mozart and Salieri is Pushkin-based. It comprises a very short introduction and two scenes. It’s a two-hander. This one is live from the Bolshoi with some with coughing obbligato. The 1976 sound is fierce, vibrant, echoey, overcooked and ultimately tiring. It’s little surprise that some of the piano writing is very Mozartean. This 41- minute miniature ends in plaintive writing for strings and woodwind. Maslennikov and Nesterenko are a class act and the latter, for me, vies with Vladimir Atlantov in his heroic tone.
Vera sheloga is another one-acter but even lesser known. It consists of an overture and three scenes. This is a nice recording and the overture is cut from Russian Nationalist cloth that would not have been out of place from Borodin or Balakirev. Scene 1 has some lovely lyrical Tchaikovskian ideas and the lullaby in Scene 2 is worth recalling if you wanted to assemble an anthology. The singing of Stevka Evstatieva makes for a sweetly shaped Vera in an opera that has a predominance of female voices. The work ends with some ripe invention and dark Tchaikovskian black-hearted brass. Conductor Angelov paces the progress of this little opera with unerring skill.
This 1992 reading of The Tsar’s Bride has been reviewed here before. Unlike the chamber music disc the writing is distinctively mature Rimsky-Korsakov (Scheherazade). His identity is instantly announced. The recording is good and clear. There is, perhaps inevitably, some imperial music, as in the much earlier Snow Maiden (Snegurotchka). This Glass Is For You on CD19 brims with romantic lyricism. The Prelude to Act 4 contrasts the composer’s softer voice with the fate-weighted bark of the brass - echoes of Scheherazade. Much of this music is urgent and melodious matched with invention of high drama and tragedy.
We come then to a 1956 vintage Kitezh in AAD mono licensed from Preiser. It has a strong cast and is conducted by Vassili Nebolsin. The results are tense and tumultuous for this big four-act opera. How could it be anything else with the great bass Ivan Petrov as Prince Yuri; he sounds so ardent in Hail to Thee, Lips of Honey. The birdsong moments are all sweetly and magically turned by the orchestra with the woodwind and harp deserving to take a limelight bow. Vladimir Ivanovsky is in glorious voice reminding me of Usko Viitanen in the Berglund recording of Kullervo. As for Natalia Rozhdestvenskaya she is all stormy conflagration as Fevroniya in Ah, my dear husband. Very welcome too - we have as a supplement an undated recital of seven songs by Petrov overlapping CDs 7-9 except that The upas tree is not included there. Predictably Petrov radiates emotional variety and sensitivity.
The Golden Cockerel takes us back to a 1985 Sofia National Opera-based production. It’s in good modern-ish Balkanton sound. Inevitably this is a work that is easier to come to terms with given the popularity of the famous orchestral suite. It’s from the composer’s high water maturity and is full of fantasy and sarcasm. Dimiter Manolov keeps the reins taut and ensures that a bright neon ‘filament’ remains lit under the score. Highlights are numerous but they include the very calming music of Dodon’s ‘siesta’ and much play is made of the cock's-crow figure that opens the opera on trumpet at the start. The stereo effects of the brass fanfares on track 9 are striking as are many fine shimmering effects. The Astrologer who opened the story ends it amid a crystalline staccato twinkle. This is available separately as 94431.
If Brilliant Classics are looking for further licensing concepts then let me recommend them to approach Sanctuary Classics or their successor in title for a Tjeknavorian Edition and why not the Chandos Bax Bryden Thomson symphony cycle now that the Handley set is centre-stage?
If we ignore The Flight of the Bumble-Bee the only really famous work here is the Sheherazade; surprisingly there’s no Russian Easter Festival Overture and no Capriccio Espagnol - not that you’ll have any difficulty in finding these.
If you are interested only in the symphonies then try to track down the USSRSO/Evgeny Svetlanov set on a BMG-Melodiya Twofer (74321 40065 2: 76:18 + 74:41). Neeme Järvi on DG (1988), Dmitri Kitaenko on Chandos (1990) and Evgeny Svetlanov on Hyperion (1990) should also be worth auditioning in the same repertoire.
One footnote. Since the issue of this admirable set Brilliant Classics have issued another Rimsky opera not included here: Kashchey the Immortal. It’s on 94657 and is conducted by Chistiakov.
This Rimsky box is inexpensive, generous and covers unusual territory. Nothing here is less than good from a recording and interpretative viewpoint.
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Scheherazade, symphonic suite after a thousand and one nights, Op. 35 [42.19]
Sadko, Musical Picture Op. 5 [11.18]
Song of India, from Sadko [3.30]
Symphony No. 1 in E minor Op. 1 (1865) [29.22]
Symphony No. 2 Op. 9 "Antar"(1868 rev. 1897) [31.15]
Overture on Three Russian Themes, Op. 28 11:40
Symphony No. 3 in C major Op. 32 (1866-73, rev. 1886) [30.10]
Fairy Tale (Skazka), Op. 29 (1879-80) [15.54]
The Golden Cockerel Suite (arr. A. Glazunov & M. Steinberg) [26.18]
The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Suite Op. 57 [18.18]
Christmas Eve, Suite [29.31]
Tale of Tsar Saltan Suite, Op. 57: Flight of the Bumblebee 01:03
The legend of The Invisible City of Kitezh Suite [23:04]
Pan Voyevoda Suite, Op. 59 [22:42]
Piano Concerto in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 30 [14:20]
Piano Trio in C Minor (completed in 1939 by M. Steinberg) [37:08]
Quintet in B-Flat [25:24]
Songs, opp. 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 25, 26, 27, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43 ‘Vesnoy’, 45, 46, 50, 51, 55 & 56
Poem about Aleksey, the Man of God, Op. 20 for chorus and orchestra 5:42
Song of Oleg the Wise, Op. 58 for two male soloists, male chorus and orchestra (Pushkin) 17:11
From Homer, Op. 60: Prelude-cantata for three voices, female chorus and orchestra 11:42
Switezianka, Op. 44 (The Mermaid of Lake Switez): Cantata for two solo voices, chorus and orchestra (L.A. Mey) 16:25
May Night: acts 1-2 beginning
May Night: act 2 conclusion & 3
The Snow Maiden: - prologue & act 1 beginning
The Snow Maiden: act 1 conclusion & 2
The Snow Maiden: acts 3-4
Mozart And Salieri Op. 48: Introduction; Scenes 1-2
The Noblewoman Vera Sheloga: Overture and Scenes 1-3
The Tsar's Bride- Acts 1-4
The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and The Maiden Fevroniya: Acts 1-4 and Romances: The rainy day has waned, Op. 51 No. 5 (Pushkin); The clouds begin to scatter, Op. 42 No. 3 (Pushkin); Oh, if thou couldst for one moment, Op. 39 No. 1 (Tolstoy); Not the wind, blowing from the heights, Op. 43 No. 2 (Tolstoy); The Octave, Op. 45 No. 3 (Maykov); The Messenger, Op. 4 No. 2 (Heine); The Upas Tree, Op. 49 No. 1 (Pushkin)
The Golden Cockerel: Prologue & Acts 1-2 and Epilogue
Scheherazade, Op. 35, ‘Symphonic Suite after A Thousand and One Nights’ [44:00]
Symphony No. 3 in C, Op. 32 [33:31]