Rimsky-Korsakov: Orchestral Suites (SACD review)

Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 362.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was a part of the circle of Russian composer's known as the "Mighty Five" (the others being Mily Balakirev, Caesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Alexander Borodin). They aimed to produce a specifically Russian form of music, and certainly much of their influential output remains well known today, even if it's only in bits and pieces. For example, my guess is that beyond Scheherazade, Capriccio Espagnol, and maybe the Russian Easter Festival Overture, most casual listeners these days probably wouldn't recognize much by Rimsky-Korsakov. This present disc aims to rectify that situation, at least to a small degree.

Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra play suites of four and five movements each from three of Rimsky-Korsakov's operas. The operas themselves may not get performed much anymore, but the orchestral arrangements the composer himself extracted from them live on quite comfortably.

Things begin with the four-movement suite from the opera Snow Maiden. It's a short piece, about eleven minutes in all, but it's quite colorful, evocative, and entertaining, especially under Pletnev's elegant direction. It's mostly sweet, gentle music until the final movement, "The Dance of the Tumblers," which gets a bit more rambunctious.

Next up is Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, again in four fairly brief movements. More so than in Snow Maiden we hear the composer creating sound pictures, even to the chirping of birds in the background, and Pletnev emphasizes all the music's most pictorial elements. Although it may be lightweight, the music is quite charming, and Pletnev forges into the third-movement battle scene with relish, concluding the work with a richly embroidered "Funeral" sequence.

Finally, saving the best for last, Pletnev gives us the longest (five-movement) and most-memorable of the suites, "Night on Mount Triglav" from the third act ballet-opera Mlada. This suite has an almost Wagnerian scope to it, which Maestro Pletnev is quick to exploit. The music goes so far as to involve mortals and gods, as does much of Wagner's music. The difference is that Rimsky-Korsakov seems more interested in painting soft pastel watercolors than in creating vast Wagnerian canvases in oil. Here, we get visions of spirits and apparitions rather than thunderbolts and Valkyries. Pletnev lets all the guns loose, though, in the third movement "Witches' Sabbath" when the god Cernomor, the immortal Kashchei, and Cleopatra all appear. The action ends in a burst of sunset and then a relative calm.

PentaTone offer the sound in regular two-channel stereo, SACD stereo, and SACD multichannel on the same hybrid disc. The recording, made in 2009, comes up nicely detailed and with a reasonably good depth of field. There is little of the enshrouding fog we sometimes hear in SACD surround-sound recordings. There is, nevertheless, the faintest hint of low-frequency background noise noticeable on occason, usually during the quietest moments. A moderate dynamic impact and a wide stereo spread complete another fine recording from Pletnev and his players.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa