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Views And Reviews: Rimsky-Korsakov And Borodin

"A 'Great Recording of the Century that is a good enough, but not a great recording – but tweak your treble control, and you will enjoy some great performances,'' wrote Paul Serotsky, reviewing this recording of works by Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin.

Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade, Op.35, Symphonic Suite after “The Thousand and One Nights” (1888) *
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
orch. Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Polovtsian Dances (from “Prince Igor”, Act II) †
Steven Staryk (vn.) (*)
Beecham Choral Society (Chorus Master: Denis Vaughan) (†)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
EMI Great Recordings of the Century CDM 5 66983 2
Rec. at Kingsway Hall. London 17-19 & 28/3/1957 (*), No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London 10/11/1956 (†)
[58'07]

“Darling, they’re playing our tune!” must be one of the most hackneyed – and apocryphal – lines ever quoted. I for one can’t recall the last time I heard it used other than to get a cheap snigger in a cheap comedy show. The sad thing about it is that, in common with many such sayings that have been done to death, it contains a serious sentiment, some snippet of substance that we would find enriching, were it not obscured by the clouds of cackling.

For me, all the music on this CD, though not through these particular recordings, has that unmistakable frisson of “our tune” – or more precisely, “my tune”. As a callow youth I was fired by the spark of the fag-end of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture into exploring the world of so-called “classical music”. In the very early days, the only “stars” I had to guide me were references to other music in the sleeve-notes of a meagre LP collection painfully growing from the proceeds of a paper-round. Thus the 1812 led me to the Capriccio Italien, which led me to the Capriccio Espagnol, which led me to Scheherazade, and thence to Le Coq d’Or. The fill-up on the recording of this last was Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.

Back then, I had no conscious appreciation of the finer, or even the blunter, points of music. I was not so much self-taught as educated by experience. For example, I have a dim and distant memory of one gloomy mid-winter Saturday afternoon, following a gruelling three-mile cross-country race through snow, hoar frost and freezing fog. I was lazing and gazing into the flickering flames of a real coal fire. The music of Scheherazade, emanating from my modest record-player, insinuated itself into my somnolescent mind. It wove such tapestries of sheer mystery and delight that I dragged my aching limbs over to the record-player to repeat the experience no fewer than three times. I can think of no better justification for undergoing such extremes of cross-country torture.

That old mono LP, of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, eventually wore out under the onslaught of repeated playings. When I “got stereo”, it was pensioned off in favour of what turned out to be the resplendent RCA recording of Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.. Only then did I learn of the savage cut in the third movement of the Ormandy recording! Much later, I graduated to CD with a fine recording of the LSO under Mackerras. A bit later, I also got the SRO/Ansermet recording on CD, although this was really an accident – it came on a “Double Decca” along with some other Rimsky-Korsakov whose LP originals I had also ground down to residual hiss. However, not even wild horses would separate me from my cherished Reiner LP which, as far as I am concerned, still boasts the best cover picture. Maybe the representation of Sinbad’s ship is hardly what you’d call “authentic”, but who cares?

Scheherazade is not what you’d call a rare bird: there are over 80 recordings listed in the current catalogue, and we are wading knee-deep in concert performances. It’s hardly surprising, given the nature of the work, that orchestras of all the shades under the sun have queued up to have a crack at it, and virtuoso orchestras in particular are attracted to it like flies to a jam-pot. What is surprising is that, although the best performances tend to come from the world’s crack bands, I cannot recall ever hearing an out-and-out flop! This is one respect in which I don’t live in hope!

This recording by Beecham and the RPO dates from 1957, contemporaneous with Ansermet’s 1958 and Reiner’s 1960. EMI were perhaps rash to entitle this series of reissues “Great Recordings of the Century”. It’s an old habit: how many of us remember their original “stereo demonstration disc” (SDD1), on which the first words we heard were, “EMI, the greatest recording organisation in the world . . .”? Such a boast-laden legend is bound to court controversy, and indeed has already provoked critical comment. Of this recording, someone has muttered, “I always considered the Beecham Scheherazade over-rated”. Was he voicing his true opinion, or was he reacting to provocation?

Scheherazade is said by many to be something of a “flawed masterpiece” largely because, although it looks like a symphony, it lacks both “proper” symphonic form and thematic development. Personally, I’d argue over that “flawed”, because the composer himself made it crystal clear that he was in no way even trying to write a symphony. Then I’d go further and argue the toss with Rimsky-Korsakov, because I think he is too modest. Scheherazade actually does have symphonic form, although its developmental processes are not the usual thematic ones. Instead, playing to his strengths and pulling off a brilliantly original and stunningly appropriate master-stroke, Rimsky-Korsakov makes orchestration – both timbre and attack – itself a symphonic process. To some extent at least, the best interpretations ought to be judged on how well they elicit this unusual strategy. We should also bear in mind, especially if we are in danger of being swept away in a torrent of ultra-virtuosic adrenalin, that Scheherazade is not the musical equivalent of a “blockbuster movie”: this music is not “about” direct experience, but the telling of wondrous tales.

Sadly, I haven’t yet heard the recent Gergiev issue – anything that can send a seasoned campaigner like Edward Greenfield into transports of ecstasy has to be at least worth a listen. However, there’s a caveat: the main reason for EG’s enthusiasm seems to be the unprecedented charge of adrenalin with which Gergiev imbues the music. Nice though it is to have sackfuls of the stuff, excitement, as I’ve intimated, is not the be all and end all of Scheherazade. Where I do find “the right stuff”, in copious quantities, is in a recording that many think of as mediocre. Although the conductor is a legend, his orchestra does not rank amongst the virtuoso roof-lifters of this world. The woodwind, which feature so prominently in this work, have a highly distinctive flavour that is, for some reason, not to everyone’s taste. The orchestral ensemble is often distinctly crumbly, and the performance of the Festival at Baghdad has all the venom of a grass-snake.

Yet Ernest Ansermet’s understanding and judgement of that all-important colour, and in particular Rimsky-Korsakov’s cunning deployment of colour, is second to none. Also astonishing is the skill with which he draws those colours out of the Suisse Romande Orchestra. Backed up by some first-rate vintage Decca engineering, the sound is cosy and warm to complement the conductor’s “magic carpet”. Ansermet’s violinist, Lorand Fenyves, lacks virtuosic self-confidence, but for me plays his seductive part with greater awareness than most of the character behind the musical lines. Ansermet’s performance of The Flight of the Bumble Bee on the same issue, coupled with the barnstorming amplitude that he unleashes on occasions, tends to suggest that the relative lack of crackling excitement is a matter of choice: simply, Ansermet was not prepared to sacrifice colour on the altar of galvanism. That said, Ansermet is overall as quick as Reiner, and his Young Prince and Princess is a good two and a half minutes quicker, possibly the nearest approach to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “andante” marking.

If we turn to my representative of the Digital Age, we get all the things that Ansermet lacks: the virtuosity of the LSO on sizzling form, a dynamic range that can crack glass, and oodles of power and dynamism – plus a whack on the tam-tam that hangs in the air for what seems an eternity. Make no mistake, Mackerras can splash the colours around with the best of them, and yet . . . and yet even in the opening bars he slips up! Rimsky-Korsakov scored that huge initial blast from Sultan Sharyar for strings, reinforced by heavy brass. In this recording, the strings are all but annihilated, and the special colour – the richness and cosiness – is lost in a blaze of steely brilliance. The Telarc recording, wide-ranging as it is, doesn’t help because in comparison with the Decca it is almost as if everything was bathed in cobalt-blue light.

Reiner, on the other hand, is served well by the RCA recording. Combining poster-paint vividness with affectionate warmth, this pretty well matches his approach blow for blow. I find a kinship with Ansermet, once I have eliminated the blatantly obvious differences – Reiner’s CSO is a top-notch orchestra drilled to near-perfection, with woodwind judiciously spotlit. This is nevertheless still “story-telling”, but it’s story-telling with an injection of transatlantic pep and “pizzaz”. Although Reiner’s legendary discipline inevitably imposes a more direct line, it is by no means metronomically rigid. Take, for example, the bassoon solo at the start of The Tale of the Kalendar Prince, strategically placed by Rimsky-Korsakov, seeing as it’s the only woodwind not to have a solo part in the first movement. The CSO first bassoon is wonderfully sinuous. Detractors snort that (probably) even here Reiner’s control was absolute, with every last smidgin of “spontaneous” rubato planned in advance. My response, also snorted, is “What difference does it make how it got there? It’s there, and that’s all that matters!” If you’re looking for “Great Recordings of the Century”, this has to be one of them.

That brings us neatly to Beecham and his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Is this “one of them”? The recording, in common with plenty coming from EMI – and Decca – at that time, still sounds amazingly sonorous and “naturally” balanced. Although they are always entirely audible, there is not the least hint of wind soloists being elevated by microphony to the concerto soloist’s location, which helps to preserve that important “veil of mystery”. The remastering sensibly does not suppress the tape hiss between tracks, and indeed the very presence of that hiss is evidence of faith being kept with the original recording. On the down side, that original recording has a somewhat “papery” treble, conspicuous by its absence from the Decca recording for Ansermet. Zipping through the trough and back up the other side, I’m happy to tell you that dropping my amplifier’s treble a notch or so appreciably alleviated the “papery” quality. In any case, I found for the most part that my ears quickly adjusted.

Beecham, like Ansermet and Reiner, manages to make the opening phrase looming and baleful by the simple expedient of weighting the powerful brass commensurately against the strings. A good omen, I thought, and an immediate confirmation, if any was needed, that Rimsky-Korsakov knew exactly what he was about. Thereafter Beecham, through his famously relaxed podium manners, extracts playing from the orchestra that is at least as wonderfully evocative as that evinced by Reiner’s tight discipline. I wouldn’t say he quite matches Ansermet’s seemingly supreme narrative skills, but he comes pretty damned close, as he might have said himself. By way of compensation, the RPO play their socks off. To be fair, they aren’t quite in the same class as the CSO. Sadly, I can’t bring myself to agree with booklet note writer Lyndon Jenkins, who in his splendidly spirited advocacy says of bassoonist Gwydion Brooke, “[The] bassoon solo in the second movement is idiosyncratic to a marvellous degree”. It may well be true but, as far as I am concerned, only if you haven’t heard Reiner’s bassoonist. Mind you, even if it’s not that good, it is still exceptional!

Following Berlioz who first liberated percussion and, from our perspective, overshadowed by Mahler who gave percussion “full independence”, we tend to forget – or at least take for granted, which is just as bad – Rimsky-Korsakov’s remarkable understanding of the capabilities of the orchestral “kitchen”. One of the main features of his “strategic orchestration” in this work is his progressive deployment of percussion. Now, you’d think that this fact alone would ensure that conductors paid exceedingly careful attention to the percussion, but no, not a bit of it. I’m convinced that the only way you’ll hear anything approaching all of it will be to put all the recordings together in a bag and shake well.

Of all the performances I’ve heard, the only one that comes near to pulling off the entrancing last few bars of The Young Prince and Princess is, believe it or not, that ancient Ormandy effort. What makes me so certain of this is that, having been so thoroughly goose-bumped by it all those years ago, I have been patiently waiting for a repeat of the experience. I’m still waiting.

Beecham, bless his cotton socks, comes preciously close and what’s more he is by far the most consistently attentive. Does this make his digitally-remastered analogue recording “better” than state-of-the-art digital recordings? No, it doesn’t. I’ve a feeling that nowadays conductors, seduced by the high resolution recording technology, try to go all “subtle” on us. However, when subtlety becomes inaudibility it is no longer subtlety, but mere underlining of the lack of due care and attention. Beecham, whose cotton socks are doubly blessed, works this wonder simply by making sure that the players bang on their cans hard enough.

No matter how well you “know” this music, you can rest assured that Beecham and his RPO will raise your eyebrows, and the corners of your mouth, on numerous occasions (and they won’t be the same occasions for everybody!). Yes, I can hear bits of percussion that are felicitous where they were previously at best dimly perceived, but I also pricked up my ears at the ingenious attack on some of the sforzandi, and found myself cooing over yummy phrasing, and banging my foot at the sheer swagger in the marching passages, and . . . I’m sure you get the idea.

Those with eyes like hawks may have noticed there’s a fill-up that I’ve scarcely even mentioned. Critical comment can almost be limited to “it’s more of the same”, except that there’s a chorus to consider. Going back nearly as far as that Ormandy I’ve had Antal Dorati’s Mercury recording of the Polovtsian Dances in my collection. This was the one where the Mercury engineers, searching for the right balance between chorus and orchestra, placed the two in opposition with the “living presence” microphone setup in the middle! I don’t know whether the EMI engineers tried anything so radical here, but they’ve captured the resplendent Beecham Choral Society an absolute treat!

Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe suite No. 2 and the Polovtsian Dances are both generally played without the choral parts of the original ballet and opera respectively. In both cases, I grew up with recordings which bucked the trend. In spite of a nagging suspicion that I might be simply prejudiced by what I know best, I feel that in both cases something of the “soul” of the music is lost without the chorus. For these dances, that “soul” is the sheer rampant delight that massed voices add to the “oriental splendour” already well evident in the orchestral sound. It’s a sonic luxury, like garnishing a huge mound of assorted ice-creams with a massive dollop of chocolate sauce. Suffice it to say that the choral part is here dispatched with chocolate-laced passion. Yum, yum.

So, is this a “Great Recording of the Century”? Well, as a recording it’s good, but not great. EMI’s remastering engineer, Simon Gibson, could have done something about that “papery” top, but chose not to – at least, I presume that he chose not to. Instead, it sounds very much as I remember the original LP did. Anyway, you can always tweak your tone controls, because it would be a shame to miss Beecham’s great interpretation on account of such a minor matter. For a great interpretation this most certainly is, one worthy to stand alongside the likes of Reiner, and brimming with a character all its own. With this issue, maybe a new generation of youngsters can become as enchanted as I was by Rimsky-Korsakov’s “magical mystery tour”, and be set on a course through life that will, forty years or so hence, have them bemoaning the fact that “nobody does it as good as that ancient recording of Tommy Beecham’s”. I hope so.

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