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|
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: