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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 1 (1884 version) [25:37]
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 32 (1886 version) [32:52]
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec. 2-5 September 2015, Haus des Rundfunks, Masurenallee, Berlin, Germany
Reviewed as a 16-bit download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
NAXOS 8.573581 [58:29]

This is the latest instalment of Gerard Schwarz’s Rimsky series. Brian Reinhart thought highly of his Scheherazade with the Seattle Symphony, and Rob Maynard was very complimentary about their overtures; as for their orchestral suites, Em Marshall-Luck described them as ‘extremely fine performances’. Here Schwarz leads the Berlin Radio SO in Rimsky’s First and Third Symphonies. No doubt the Second, Antar, will follow in due course.

My comparative versions are those with Kees Bakels and the Malaysian Philharmonic (review) and the legendary Evgeny Svetlanov (review). I’m particularly fond of the Bakels performances, which are available singly or as part of an indispensable 4-CD set (BIS-1667/8). Alas, the internecine conflict that began with the summary dismissals of six MPO musicians in 2012 damaged the orchestra and ended a most rewarding partnership with BIS. In fact, their Smetana and Kalinnikov recordings – also with Bakels – are my top choices for the works in question.

Back to Rimsky and his Op. 1. The version we hear these days is the composer’s revised one, which dates from 1884. It’s a robust piece whose opening Largo assai – Allegro gets an assured reading from Schwarz and his Berlin band. The declamatory timps are superb and those dancing tunes have plenty of brio and bounce. Just as impressive is the conductor’s firm grip on the reins, which ensures orderly progress throughout. As expected the playing is good and the recording is decent.

Rimsky certainly penned a genial opener here, and Schwarz certainly conveys much of that. The Andante, with its restless, nagging timps, is more equivocal. That said, the performance is clear-eyed and possessed of a strong pulse. Thereafter the Scherzo is delivered with point and some pin-sharp pizzicati. As for the finale – Allegro assai – it’s bright and buoyant. Any caveats? A bit more ease and sparkle wouldn’t go amiss, but nothing else of note.

Rimsky’s Op. 32, his final symphony, was completed in February 1874 and reworked in 1886. The original score was criticised for being regressive, but the revised one – played here – sounds fresh and imaginative. The first movement’s opening theme is beautifully shaped, and there’s a warmth to this reading that can’t fail to please. Ditto the scurrying woodwinds and nicely blended brass. Schwarz makes the most of the Scherzo, which is haunted by insistent timp taps that give the music a strange cast. He then brings out the gentle, rather elegant character of the Andante – there’s some lovely string playing here – and infuses the finale with light and lift.

There’s much to admire in these performances; however, I feel there’s something missing here – a vital spark, perhaps – and that means the music isn’t as beguiling as it can be. That said, the great Svetlanov isn’t perfect either; his recording of the First Symphony seems rather dull, but he makes amends with a vivid and interesting Third. Then there’s Bakels, who manages to make even the Op. 1 seem more forward looking than it is. Remarkably, these Malaysians sound more Russianate than their German counterparts; that shouldn’t come as a surprise, given their wonderfully idiomatic accounts of the Kalinnikov symphonies. Also, the BIS recording is more revealing than the Naxos one; it’s airier, too.

Ultimately, though, it’s about the tale, and in that respect Bakels is a more subtle and compelling narrator than Schwarz in both symphonies. He retrieves extra detail and phrases with real flair; indeed, Bakels has the knack of making both works seem newly minted. True, he’s not always as seamless as Schwarz – the theme at the start of the Third, for example – but that hardly matters when his overall approach is so cogent and characterful. Schwarz offers no fillers, but Bakels does – a splendid account of the Fantasia on Serbian themes.

More fine Rimsky from Gerard Schwarz; Kees Bakels is even finer, though.

Dan Morgan



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