Rimsky-Korsakov: Sheherazade (CD review)

Also, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, suite. Maria Larionoff, violin; Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony. Naxos 8.572693.

Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) wrote his symphonic suite Sheherazade in 1888, describing it as "a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of oriental character." As such, it really isn't so much descriptive as it is evocative, with only the narrator, the beautiful slave girl characterized by the solo violin, being a specific representative element.

The composer did give the four movements in the suite names, however, which he later withdrew. Nevertheless, they persist. "The Sea and Sinbad's Ship" (Prelude) sounds wonderfully smooth, flowing, light, and airy under the conductorship of Gerard Schwarz and his Seattle Symphony players.  Schwarz emphasizes the lyrical qualities as well as anybody, nicely catching the beauty and rhythms of the piece. "The Kalender Prince" (Ballade) displays a pleasingly glamorous touch, the exotic Middle-Eastern motif exploited to the fullest. Moreover, concertmaster Maria Larionoff's violin solos (she plays on a 1775 Guadagnini) as the young narrator are sweet and delightful.

Under Maestro Schwarz, "The Young Prince and Princess" (Adagio) is appropriately romantic and engaging, taking us to "The Festival at Baghdad--The Sea" (Finale), which Schwarz ensures is as thrilling as it is dashing.

The program concludes with an orchestral suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. It is brief, four movements of two-to-seven minutes each, but it carries with it the same kind of fairy-tale qualities we find in Sheherazade, if not quite so entrancing.

Although Schwarz produces a commendable Sheherazade in almost every way, there is formidable competition available, much of it at the mid-price point, and unless one has to have the music in the very latest digital sound, there are other recordings to consider. For example, Fritz Reiner (RCA or JVC) is more exciting; Bernard Haitink (Philips) is more poetic; Kirill Kondrashin (Philips) is more dramatic; Sir Charles Mackerras (Telarc, also digital) is more expressive; and Sir Thomas Beecham (EMI) is more magical. What's more, all of these older recordings sound equally good as or better than the Schwarz Naxos disc.

Recorded at Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington, in 2010, the audio is among Naxos's better efforts. It is full and wide ranging, with decent impact, a broad dynamic spread, and sparkling highs.  Midrange transparency comes through nicely, and stage depth, while modest, is realistic. Although the deepest bass is somewhat light in Sheherazade, the mid-bass more than makes up for it. Besides, the deep bass comes through much better in The Tale of Tsar Saltan, which Naxos recorded a month or so later with what seems like different miking. Perhaps not in the absolute top tier of audiophile recordings, the sound, nonetheless, should disappoint no one.


1 comment:

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa