Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade (CD review)

Also, Tsar Saltan, suite.  Samuel Magad, violin; Daniel Barenboim, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Warner Classics Apex 2564 67429-0.

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) wrote his symphonic suite Scheherazade, Op. 35, in 1888, loosely basing it on the mood of tales from the Arabian Nights, saying "All I desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond a doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other and composed on the basis of themes common to all the four movements." Certainly, it would become the most-popular thing the man ever wrote and one of the most widely played and widely loved pieces of music in the classical repertoire.

The composer titled the first movement The Sea and Sinbad's Ship. In Maestro Daniel Barenboim's reading, compared to conductors like Beecham (EMI), Reiner (RCA), Haitink (Philips), Kondrashin (Philips), and Mackerras (Telarc), things seem a little under-characterized. However, in its favor there is no exaggeration, no glamorizing of the score. Then, too, the conductor loses a bit of something in his pointing of dynamic contrasts, the phrasing being a touch limp at times. These are quibbles, of course, in an otherwise fine rendering, with Samuel Magad's violin providing a sensuous narration and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra responding resplendently. Following that, The Story of the Kalandar Prince comes across beautifully in its poetic sections, even if the more-exciting parts appear a bit flat.

In The Young Prince and Princess Barenboim conveys a lovely lyrical mood as the romance unfolds. And then in the big finale that follows, Festival in Baghdad; The Sea; Shipwreck, Barenboim continues the romantic spirit, if failing to generate as many outright thrills as his rivals. So, overall, what we get is a fairly ordinary performance, with some good points and some mediocre ones.

The disc program ends with the Suite from Tsar Saltan, which includes The Tsar's Farewell and Departure, The Tsarina in a Barrel at Sea, and The Three Wonders. Here, I thought Barenboim brought out more color in the score than he did in Scheherazade. He seems to be having more fun with the music, too, and it comes across in a bouncier, more-playful style. I wonder if he wasn't taking Scheherazade too seriously. I dunno.

Originally, it was Erato who made the recording at Orchestra Hall, Chicago, in 1993, re-released by Warner Classic in 2011. The sound is very clean and clear, with plenty of transparent midrange texture, orchestral depth, hall ambience, and dynamic range. Although the extension of bass and treble is only moderate, not extraordinary, the upper strings display a realistic, perhaps compensating, sheen. So whether you like the performance or not, at least the sound is pretty good.


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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 over 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, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, AVA FET Valve 550hc or Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer.
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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa