Russian Nights (CD review)

Music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, Prokofiev, Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Liadov, Moussorgsky, and Khachaturian. Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops. Telarc CD-80657.

Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra pretty much took over where Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops left off, both conductors and orchestras among the most popular classical recording artists of all time. Of course, it would have been nice to hear Kunzel conduct a single piece that lasted more than a few minutes, but, alas, it would not be on this album, something like his eighty-third Telarc disc.

This time Kunzel was doing Russian and Armenian composers, if not purely Russian or Armenian music. For example, the centerpiece of the album is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, which seems a little strange considering Telarc titled the disc “Russian Nights” and then features a composition of Spanish-inflected music. Oh, well; I suppose we get the idea. Almost everything on the disc is familiar territory, and while it is all neat and tidy, it is oddly flat. The performances seem to lack the last degree of flair and passion these red-blooded Russian works needed. The album reminded me that Georg Solti’s old collection of similar Russian showpieces exhibited more zeal and excitement than Kunzel brings to the table. Then, too, I couldn’t help thinking of Ataulfo Argenta’s 1956 rendition of the Capriccio Espagnol on a remastered LIM XRCD, a performance so overwhelmingly powerful and colorful, it was a hard act for Kunzel to follow.

Anyway, here we get things like Glinka’s Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla, Prokofiev’s March from The Love for Three Oranges, Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” from Prince Igor, Tchaikovsky’s “Russian Dance” from The Nutcracker, and Moussorgsky’s Polonaise from Boris Godunov. They all sound appropriately showy, but my favorite pieces were the less flamboyant ones: Anatol Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake and The Music Box, and the star attraction, Aram Khachaturian’s “Love Theme” from the ballet Spartacus. This latter music demonstrates the disc’s wide dynamic range as well as the music’s wide emotional range. The sonics are quite spectacular if, as we’ll see, also problematic.

I began wondering as I listened to the Khachaturian if the wide dynamic range were not in itself some of the cause for the music sounding slightly earthbound. One has to turn the softest passages up in volume to appreciate them, and then the loudest sections knock you out of your seat. Now, I’m all for a recording displaying a realistically wide dynamic range, as long as it’s within reason. The result here, though, is that for the most part, you’re listening at too low a level and nothing seems to come to life except now and again. Add to this the fact that the Telarc engineers recorded the whole show in the smoothest possible manner at a moderate distance, and you don’t quite get the up-front, in-your-face presentations that these war-horses demand. The fact is, in terms of replicating a live experience, the wide dynamics would indicate a close-up seating position, while the smooth, warm response would indicate a greater distance. The contrast is a tad disconcerting.

Still, the Telarc disc provides good orchestral depth; good left-to-right stereo spread; typically good, if slightly overwrought, Telarc bass; some velvety polished highs; and those wide dynamics I mentioned. It’s almost, if not quite, enough.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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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