Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade (CD review)

Also Borodin: Polovtsian Dances. Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 66998 2.

For over forty years I lived contentedly with Bernard Haitink's 1972 London Philharmonic recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade on Philips. Haitink's unfussy account always seemed to me to present the work with the proper proportions of poetry and grand passion. But both the interpretation and the recording may seem too straightforward for some listeners. Recorded a few years later, 1979, came Kondrashin's Concertgebouw reading, also on Philips, with an altogether more dynamic impact. It, too, became, a prime choice in this material. In the digital age only two recordings impressed me as strongly: Krivine on Denon and Mackerras on Telarc. And before Haitink, I had only three other old favorites: Monteux on Decca; Reiner on RCA; and Beecham on EMI. Except for the Monteux, which I have not heard on CD, the older editions hold their heads high.

Which, finally, brings me to Sir Thomas Beecham, whose recording not only holds his own against any competition, his 1958 EMI recording, remastered in EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century" series, is head and shoulders above most of the competition. Indeed, for many listeners, myself included, it may now rank at or near the top of the pile.

Sir Thomas Beecham
There is no doubt in my mind Beecham's interpretation is the most poetically inspiring vision of all. Steven Staryk's violin solos, the voice of the lady Scheherazade, are magnificently soaring in their lyricism. Nor does the excitement go wanting, especially in the big closing numbers, "The Festival of Baghdad" and "The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock." Beecham's magic touch, the constant twinkle in his eye, and his effervescent joy in conducting are forever in evidence. Combined with a rousing coupling of the Borodin "Polovtsian Dances," this is music-making of the highest order.

Then, there's the sound, produced by Victor Olof and Lawrence Collingwood and engineered by Christopher Parker at Kingsway Hall, London, March 1957 (Scheherazade) and Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, November 1956 ("Polovtsian Dances"), which EMI remastered as part of their "Great Recordings of the Century" line.

Ah, yes, the sound. It had been many years since I last heard Beecham's Scheherazade (on vinyl, in fact), and I was honestly not prepared to appreciate the remastered sonics as much as I did. Of the half dozen comparisons I've mentioned, Beecham's EMI recording was clearly among the best, the most transparent, the most natural, the most well-imaged. With the possible exception of some small background noise, hardly noticeable in most instances, and a slightly less robust bass than a few competitors, the EMI sonics are top drawer by the standards of any day. The high end in particular is more open than most of its rivals, yet the overall audio balance is warm and smooth. Indeed, it is only the equally old Reiner/RCA account that comes close sonically or interpretatively the Beecham, the Reiner a recording made even better, incidentally, in its JVC XRCD remastering.

Yes, all told, Beecham's account is one of the best you'll find. Can I recommend this disc any more strongly? Not without holding a gun to your head.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa