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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Capriccio espagnol, op. 34 (1887) [15:02]
Scheherazade, op. 35 (1888) [42:39]
London Symphony Orchestra/Igor Markevitch
rec. Wembley Town Hall, London, 1962
ELOQUENCE 482 9378 [57:49]

The 1950s and 1960s were a good time for Scheherazade. Rimsky-Korsakov’s mastery of sophisticated and atmospheric orchestration could at last come into its own on disc thanks to the growing dominance of the LP format and such ground-breaking advances in recording technology as ffrr (full frequency range recording) and ffss (full frequency stereophonic sound). Given such developments, it comes as no surprise to discover that the piece chosen by Decca’s producers for their first stereo recording, made in May 1954 by the Suisse Romande Orchestra under Ernest Ansermet, was yet another of Rimsky’s colourful scores, Antar.

Though the so-called and still much-admired “Decca sound” undoubtedly set the standard in that period, the Dutch company Philips was also highly regarded for its technical achievements. Its 1962 recording of Scheherazade, in which Igor Markevitch conducts the London Symphony Orchestra, has been applauded over the years but has sometimes been rather difficult to get hold of. Since disposing of my old LP turntable many years ago, I have left my own copy, on a 1970s Philips Universo re-release, languishing unplayed in my attic. But, just like the proverbial buses, two reissues on CD have now appeared at once, for, just a few weeks ago, my colleague Robert Cummings found it, much to his delight, included in a Doremi 2-disc set Igor Markevitch vol. 1 – Hidden treasures (DHR-8077/8 (review). Robert thought it the best of the five works on that release. He praised the conductor’s phrasing and sense of orchestral balance and singled out for special mention both Erich Gruenberg’s violin solos and the quality of the original recording. In conclusion, he considered it “nearly as fine” as his preferred reference recording by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, another vintage account, aptly described by MusicWeb’s Ian Lace as “sumptuous, exciting and wonderfully sensuous” (review).

This, I’m afraid, is going to be one of those occasions where reviewers largely echo each other’s thoughts, for I can only concur with Robert’s assessment. This is, quite simply, one of the best-played and recorded accounts of Scheherazade ever made, right from the opening moment when the LSO brass uncompromisingly blast out Sultan Schahriar’s ominously threatening theme until the point, 42 minutes later, when peace and tranquillity are restored to the harem as Scheherazade herself delivers a consolatory and emotionally cathartic resolution to all the foregoing nautical, terrestrial and marital dramas.

The opening movement The sea and Sinbad’s ship gets matters off to an excellent start. Aided by the very skilled playing of every section of the orchestra and by Gruenberg’s well-conceived and lyrically executed solos, Markevitch’s expert ear for – and tight control of – both orchestral balance and dynamics delivers a well-crafted and artistically satisfying performance. While the familiar propulsive theme depicting Sinbad’s vessel coursing through the waves of the Indian Ocean, introduced early at 1:34 and developed relentlessly by the composer thereafter, is forcefully delivered in true largo maestoso fashion, it does not overwhelm Rimsky-Korsakov’s other, more delicately phrased, thematic material – as can easily happen in less expert hands.

Markevitch is also notably successful in navigating (sorry!) listeners through the following movement which, for essentially psychological reasons, can sometimes come across as less than fully convincing. The potential difficulty derives from Rimsky-Korsakov’s original decision to allocate graphic titles to each of Scheherazade’s movements. While he had hoped that they would convey simply a vague, general sense of the atmosphere of the oriental world, they were instead – and quite understandably – taken by listeners as depicting narrative. Even though he later disavowed them entirely, they have stuck. Three of them (The sea and Sinbad’s ship; The young prince and the princess; and Festival at Baghdad – The sea – The ship breaks against a cliff surmounted by a bronze horseman) are so suggestive of explicit action or easily-visualised stock Arabian Nights characters that they instantly fill our heads with colourful scenarios worthy of Maria Montez, Jon Hall and Sabu at their hammy best. However, the second of them is the exception. While the opening movement had generated an indelible mental depiction of Sinbad’s ship under full sail and stimulated its listeners to subconsciously-imagined narratives (Sinbad, after all, must be sailing somewhere and for something), the subsequent Tale of the Kalandar prince brings us up short, for its supposed narrative cannot be visualised or “followed” in the same way. Not only is its title unhelpfully imprecise (what tale?), but in the absence of written guidance its musical material is also less obviously pictorial. While certainly not overcoming this admittedly non-musical difficulty, Markevitch manages to integrate the somewhat disparate themes much more effectively than usual, so that on this occasion the movement successfully emerges as some sort of unified “tale”, even if, ultimately, we may still be none the wiser as to what it was actually about.

The third and fourth movements once again allow our creative imaginations, as guided or perhaps misguided by the composer’s own words, to indulge themselves to the full. The third’s prince and princess are generally taken to be lovers, which encourages most conductors to pull out the romantic stops to the fullest extent. Markevitch, however, maintains a steady pulse and is disinclined to linger over individual musical phrases to the same extent. Many will, I think, appreciate that cooler approach which pays dividends by not overbalancing or overheating the movement. His timing of 9:22 certainly shows him to be at the brisker end of the spectrum. Confining myself only to other vintage performances from my shelves, it is clear that many of his best-known contemporaries preferred to indulge the score’s more sinuous elements at that point, with timings of up to 12:00 (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Reiner, 1960, see review and review), 11:35 (the Philharmonia Orchestra/Dobrowen, 1953), 10:55 (the USSR State Academic Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra/Golovanov, 1950, see review), 10:42 (the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Beecham, 1957, see review) and 10:38 (the Philharmonia Orchestra/Kletzki, 1960?). Less extreme, but still slower than Markevitch, are recordings by the London Symphony Orchestra/Goosens (1958) coming in at 9:49, the Philadelphia Orchestra/Ormandy (1962, see review) at 9:46, and the Suisse Romande Orchestra/Ansermet (1960) at 9:34. The only accounts of that era that I know to be delivered even more forthrightly than Markevitch’s are those by the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Ansermet (1948), which comes in just 9:06, and by the London Symphony Orchestra/Monteux (1966) which is timed at an amazingly brisk and business-like 8:24 and offers the most amazing contrast when heard alongside its antithesis Reiner. With no hint of romance about his version at all, I can only assume that Monteux saw the prince and princess less as lovers than as playfully innocent siblings.

If Markevitch is brisk in the third movement, he is remarkably measured in the fourth (12:42) where, of my comparative versions, only Beecham takes longer at 12:51. As both he and Beecham demonstrate, however, any loss in superficial excitement can be more than compensated for by gains in sheer intensity and dramatic insight. Markevitch’s account is one that builds steadily and remorselessly to its climax, successfully managing all the movement’s tricky changes of musical gear. While less sonically overwhelming than Reiner’s Living Stereo blockbuster, it exhibits a slightly drier, less reverberant sound which means that lots of the finer detail of Rimsky’s orchestration emerges intact and clearly. This is ultimately an emotionally satisfying and, indeed, cathartic account that, rather than being presented as a showstopper, establishes itself securely and appropriately within the composer’s overall conception.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s other kaleidoscopic sonic masterpiece from a year earlier than Scheherazade, the Capriccio espagnol, receives an equally fine performance here. Its relentless, garish Mediterranean colour and addictive foot-stamping rhythms – as seen through the eyes of a Russian composer – deliver all our expected, if clichéd, images of Spain and its people. In reality, there is surely little that individual conductors can do to impose their own identities on a relatively brief showpiece such as this. The most effective recordings are, to be honest, those that major on sheer musical excitement. Markevitch delivers that particular aspect extremely effectively and with immense verve, even though his performance does not, in the end, displace my long-term favourite, the 1957 account from, once again, the London Symphony Orchestra though this time under the baton of the sadly short-lived Ataúlfo Argenta. By the way, if you have not already listened to the Argenta CD España (443 580-2), released some years ago in a Decca series appropriately designated The Classic Sound, you should try to do so: its Spanish-themed pieces, including not just Capriccio espagnol but others by Chabrier, Granados, Moszkowski (Spanish dances, Book 1 are a particular sonic highlight) and Debussy, receive superb performances in sound that is still today utterly stunning in its clarity.

These two Igor Markevitch recordings demonstrate yet again the conductor’s innate skill in the Russian repertoire as well as the very high standards of playing that the London Symphony Orchestra was exhibiting at the beginning of what was to be something of a Golden Age in its history (“During the early 1960s, perhaps for the first time since the orchestra’s early years, there was a real ‘can do’ spirit in the LSO” – Richard Morrison Orchestra – The LSO: a century of triumph and turbulence [London, 2004], p. 143). It is a complete delight to welcome them back into wide circulation once again.

Rob Maynard

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