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Nikolay RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, op.1 (1865,rev. 1884) [25:37]
Symphony No. 3 in C major, op.32 (1874, rev. 1886) [32:52]
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Haus des Rundfunks, Masurenallee, Berlin, 2-5 September 2015
NAXOS 8.573581 [58:29]

Nineteenth century Russian composers had something of a love affair with the countries of the Mediterranean. Glinka, for instance, wrote two evocative Spanish "overtures" - Capriccio brilliante on the Jota Aragonesa and Recollection of a summer night in Madrid - that are still occasionally heard today. One of Tchaikovsky's most popular orchestral works remains his Capriccio Italien. Meanwhile, Rimsky-Korsakov not only wrote a scintillating Capriccio espagnol but, at the very end of his life, orchestrated a Neapolitan Song - even if, in so doing, he repeated the error famously made by Richard Strauss in Aus Italien of assuming that Feniculý, feniculÓ was a traditional folk song and not an original and relatively recent composition by Luigi Denza.

Given that the hot southern sun, the sparkling Mediterranean waves and the fiery Latin temperament proved such powerful musical inspirations, it is somewhat bizarre to discover that the original version of Rimsky-Korsakov's first symphony was completed on, of all places, the decidedly chilly and distinctly murky waters of the Thames estuary. It's a intriguing thought that, if the Almaz, the ship on which the young composer was serving as a naval officer, had anchored there for just a little while longer, I might well today be reviewing a recording of a Capriccio Gravesend.

Returning from such fanciful speculation to reality, it's fair to say that neither that first symphony nor Rimsky's third has become core orchestral repertoire. Nonetheless, they've been recorded often enough - if, usually, as part of larger composer-centred sets - to make useful comparison possible.

Many MusicWeb readers who know these works may, like me, have made their acquaintance through one or other of Evgeny Svetlanov's recordings. My own collection includes his 1983 performances of both symphonies with the USSR Symphony Orchestra (Melodiya/BMG 74321 40065 2), as well as to those recorded a decade later by the same team - although by then the USSR SO had been renamed the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia (RCA Red Seal 09026 62558 2 and 09026 62684 2). I have been listening to them back to back with the new Schwarz disc.

Given its composer's youth, inexperience and lack of formal training - and even though the usually heard version, as here, is a revised and re-orchestrated one made in 1884 - Rimsky's first symphony is a remarkably accomplished composition. The most obviously and immediately appealing of its four movements is the second, an andante tranquillo based on the melody of a Russian folk song that this time turns out to be a genuine one. Exhibiting a winning combination of dignity and sentiment, it momentarily abjures that tranquillo qualification as it builds up to a restless, powerful climax (3:31-4:13) before subsiding back to its quieter roots. It is the symphony's emotional heart.

Looking at just that single movement identifies what is perhaps the main characteristic of Gerard Schwarz's way with these scores - a consistently unfussy and straightforward approach, hedged about with an air of solid integrity.

Of course, listeners who first encountered this music via Evgeny Svetlanov may be taken aback by the American conductor's perspective - especially his comparatively no-nonsense tempi. In the case of that andante tranquillo, for instance, Schwarz brings it to a close in 7:14, which certainly seems somewhat brisk when compared to Svetlanov's far more leisurely timings. In his 1993 recording the Russian brought the movement in at a pretty relaxed 9:48, while a decade earlier he'd stretched it out even further to no less than an astonishing 10:40. That intensely subjective 1983 account, played for all and more of its emotional worth and with every appropriate moment - as well as a few inappropriate ones - underlined in triplicate by gorgeously fruity Soviet-era brass, undoubtedly generates a huge visceral impact. After listening repeatedly to the new Schwarz recording, however, I've undergone something of a Damascene conversion and have come to think that the extreme length of Svetlanov’s andante tranquillo unbalances the symphony's structure. Moreover, I now find that the slow tempo actually causes the movement to sound, at times, just a little grotesque.

Schwarz's more subtly nuanced account, in contrast, seems just about right. While undoubtedly more propulsive, it's certainly not rushed by any means and it aligns the slow movement better with its three fellows. Moreover, its emotional reticence and characteristic eschewal of extremes may well prove welcome to those listeners reluctant to be put through the 10:40 emotional wringer. Fashions - even in music - change. Svetlanov famously claimed to perform everything "as if my life depended on it", a badge of pride ostentatiously emblazoned on every CD release in the conductor's ╔dition officielle. Many listeners - especially those coming new to this music - may, I suspect, find Schwarz's greater objectivity and his rock-solid musical integrity much more appealing, especially when demonstrated in such well executed performances as these.

The rest of the first symphony is just as well done in the same Schwarz manner, with timings in every one of the four movements faster than those in either Svetlanov recording. Once it's past the largo assai opening, the first movement moves briskly and purposefully along. As he keeps the journey's final destination constantly in view, the conductor resolutely resists any temptation to meander at unnecessary length along the byways en route. The third movement scherzo is as vivace as the composer specified, all its fine detail executed with agility and precision by the Berlin players, while Schwarz's characteristic drive is displayed once again in a finale which is executed with notable success.

Completed in 1873, Rimsky's third symphony was, like his first, subjected to revision in the 1880s. Schwarz and his Berlin forces perform the final 1886 version. While the symphony no.1 was, as already noted, substantially influenced by soulful Russian folk song and the second, Antar, later redesignated by the composer as a "symphonic suite", is a lushly romantic tour de force in the manner of Scheherazade, the symphony no.3 seems somewhat out on a limb. Rimsky's contemporaries were rather critical of it, considering that he'd lost his spark of originality. Tchaikovsky thought that substance had been sacrificed to a demonstration of technical skills, an assessment that the composer himself later confirmed by admitting that he'd unwisely "tried to crowd in as much counterpoint as possible". Borodin, meanwhile, suggested that the composer had abandoned his characteristic musical idiom in favour of writing the sort of academically orthodox piece - Eine grosse Symphonie in C, as he wickedly described it - that he thought posterity would expect of him.

As Russia's leading conductor of the late 20th century, Svetlanov assumed a self-appointed role as custodian of the national orchestral tradition. As such, I suspect that he may not have been too keen on what Borodin clearly saw as the third symphony's less than obviously Russian characteristics. It's certainly the case that his own recordings of it have never particularly enthused me in the way that those of the first symphony and Antar do. As a result, I've always echoed those early critics in hearing the third as a dry, rather dull piece. Thanks to Gerard Schwarz's new Berlin account, however, I'm pleased to admit that I may have been underestimating it all along.

The new CD's back-cover blurb is spot-on when it points out that the third symphony "is notable not only for its significantly enhanced technical competence but for its great rhythmic vitality and subtle orchestration" [my own emphasis]. Compared to the deep-hued primary colours of Scheherazade, Capriccio espagnol or the Russian Easter festival overture, this may be Rimsky-lite, but it isn’t seeking to make the symphony into something that it was never designed to be.

Schwarz’s is a very fine performance indeed. Once again, the timings of every one of the four movements are brisker than in either Russian recording, with the American conductor driving the score propulsively along. Thus, for example, the andante third moment over which Svetlanov had taken a self-indulgent 9:46 in 1983, now comes in at just 6:55. Once again, I can't deny that Svetlanov generates more emotional oomph but, having listened several times to Schwarz's way with the score, I'm coming to think that the music may not really be strong enough to support such a long drawn out approach.

Schwarz consistently keeps the music moving briskly along. At times it positively dances – which is not a quality that I ever associated with the Svetlanov recordings. It exhibits, moreover, plenty of delicacy and refinement, revealed in close detail by Naxos's skilled engineers who have given the recordings a realistic, yet warm and flattering sound. In that respect, the contrast with Svetlanov becomes even clearer. In the latter’s 1983 account a more cavernous acoustic exaggerates the USSR SO's lush playing style even further; in 2016 the Berliners' expert lightness of touch, precision and orchestral agility sparkles diamond-like when recorded in their purpose-built radio studio.

Like many other listeners, I suspect, I have derived great enjoyment from Rimsky-Korsakov's music over many years. Those who already know the delights of the delightful symphony no.1 will probably need little persuasion to try this welcome new disc. And, for anyone like me who’s seen the third symphony as something of a Cinderella among the composer’s orchestral works, I'd recommend investigating Mr Schwarz’s striking way with it without further ado.

Rob Maynard

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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