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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade – symphonic suite, Op 35 [46:41]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Scherzo fantastique, Op 3 [12:02]
Jaap van Zweden (violin)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
rec. December 1993 & April 1994, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Presto CD
DECCA 443 703-2 [58:43]

This Decca disc, now licenced by Presto Classical, was one of many made during the period that Riccardo Chailly was Chief Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (1988-2004). What I had forgotten was that Chailly’s tenure in Amsterdam partially overlapped with Jaap van Zweden’s time as one of the orchestra’s concertmasters. Van Zweden was appointed to the post in 1979 at the incredibly young age of 18; I believe he was the youngest musician ever to occupy the orchestra’s first chair. He remained in the role until 1995. since when he has carved out for himself an important career as a conductor.

Rimsky’s symphonic suite is a terrific example of his skills as a colourful and inventive orchestrator; small wonder, then, that it’s so frequently recorded. Our Masterworks Index lists 48 recorded performances – plus a few played on piano – and there must be many that have eluded our scrutiny over the years. Two spring to mind immediately: the version which Sir Chares Mackerras set down with the LSO for Telarc in 1990, equally splendid as a performance and as a recording (CD-80208); and the marvellous Philips account by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Kirill Kondrashin with the peerless Herman Krebbers as the solo violinist. My copy of that disc doesn’t have a recording date but presumably it was made during the latter years of Krebbers’ tenure as concertmaster of the RCO (1962-80).

This Chailly version gets off to a most promising start. The Sultan’s theme is declaimed imposingly by the heavy brass, after which we hear Scheherazade herself, personified by the sinuous violin of Jaap van Zweden. Van Zweden’s playing of the bewitching violin part commands attention; small wonder that the Sultan decided to listen to the story about ‘The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship’. Incidentally, the notes include an interesting point, reminding us that the youthful Rimsky spent 18 months as a midshipman in the Russian Imperial Navy; so, in portraying the sea he was able to draw on first-hand experience. Rimsky’s portrayal of the swelling sea is richly depicted by the RCO; it helps that the Decca engineers recorded the orchestra with real presence and depth in what I presume was the empty hall at the Concertgebouw. From time to time van Zweden intervenes with more delectable playing as Scheherazade continues to weave her narrative web.

‘The Story of the Kalender Prince’ benefits from some super woodwind solos early on – the bassoon solo is a particular delight. At 3:41 the music becomes more dramatic and the quick music that follows has great dash and excitement in this performance. Towards the end of the movement the slower episode is played most expressively. ‘The Young Prince and the Princess’ is, quite clearly, a love scene and it’s delivered warmly and sensually in this performance. The RCO’s strings have a very pleasing tonal sheen and, once again, there’s distinguished woodwind playing to enjoy. Chailly paces the music beautifully and his orchestra plays with great finesse. Finally, Scheherazade takes the Sultan to the ‘Festival at Baghdad’. Chailly’s performance is terrific; there’s great vitality in the music-making and the rhythms are taut. He and the orchestra do full justice to Rimsky’s colourful depiction of a crowded, lively scene as stallholders and others vie for the attention and custom of passers-by. The return of the Sultan’s theme (8:00) is every bit as imposing as it was at the very start but it’s Scheherazade who has the last word: the soft, delicate conclusion, with van Zweden’s violin gently taking centre stage, is magical. Thus ends a fine and highly enjoyable performance.

The coupling is very apposite: Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique, which was recorded just a few months later, in April 1994. This work dates from the end of Stravinsky’s time as a pupil of Rimsky – the older composer saw the completed score but died a few months before the February 1909 premiere. Scherzo fantastique definitely – and beneficially – shows the influence of Rimsky in its colourful and vibrant orchestration. However, there are premonitions of Firebird and there’s sufficient originality in the music and scoring to show Stravinsky moving out of his master’s shadow and becoming his own man. The outer sections of the work are given a sparkling performance here. The slower central section, which performs the function of a Trio, is caringly done.

Everyone will have their own favourite version(s) of Scheherazade. Beecham’s 1957 recording oozes character, though the sound on my copy, a 1987 remastering, is no match for Chailly’s Decca engineering. The 1960 Reiner version has the Chicago Symphony at its virtuosic best; unlike my colleagues, Ian Lace and Jonathan Woolf, I haven’t heard the SACD remastering but my CD copy still sounds pretty good and the performance is terrific. I’ve already referenced the Kondrashin and Mackerras recordings. Any one of these four recording would grace any collection. However, this Chailly version also has strong claims on the attention of collectors. Chailly has a real grip on the score and his conducting is exciting or sensitive, depending on the needs of the music. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra plays superbly and Jaap van Zweden makes fine, beguiling contributions. The Decca recording still sounds very handsome after 27 years; the sound has genuine presence and the engineers – and Chailly – do full justice to Rimsky’s inventive orchestrations. This disc is a most welcome addition to Presto Classical’s ever-expanding catalogue of licenced recordings.

John Quinn



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