Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade (CD review)

Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT remastered.

No, you're not experiencing deja vu. It's just that it wasn't too long ago that I reviewed EMI's own remastering of this classic 1957 recording in their "Great Recordings of the Century" series. I said of it at the time that it ranked high among all available versions of the score, and that with EMI's remastering it also ranked high for sonic quality. My only quibbles about EMI's sound were that I noticed some small background noise and a slightly less-robust bass than on a few of its competitors. Now, the folks at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) have remastered the recording from a 2-track 15ips tape, and, if anything, it sounds better than I have ever heard it before.

Anyway, for over forty years I lived contentedly with Bernard Haitink's 1972 London Philharmonic rendering 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, I admit, both the interpretation and the recording may seem too straightforward for some listeners. Recorded a few years later in 1979 came Kiril 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: Emmanuel Krivine's on Denon and Charles Mackerras's on Telarc. And before Haitink, I had only three other old favorite recordings: Pierre Monteux's on Decca; Fritz Reiner's on RCA; and Sir Thomas Beecham's on EMI. Except for the Monteux, which I have not heard on CD, the older editions held their heads high.

Sir Thomas Beecham
Which brings me to the subject here today, the Beecham recording, which not only holds its own against any competition but is head and shoulders above most of the rest. Indeed, for many listeners, myself included, its new HDTT remastering may now rank the recording at or near the top of the pile.

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. This is music-making of the highest order.

Then there's the sound, engineered by Christopher Parker in March 1957 at Kingsway Hall, London. It is splendid, indeed, especially in its new HDTT remastering.

Of the half dozen comparisons I've mentioned, Beecham's recording is clearly among the best, the most transparent, the most natural, the most dynamic, and the most well-imaged you'll find. The sonics are, in fact, top drawer by the standards of any day. The high end in particular is realistically open, yet the overall audio balance is warmer and smoother than ever. Indeed, the comparison I made to the EMI disc reveals that the HDTT version sounds less bright and just as natural but maybe even more so. The bass is probably no deeper than on EMI's version, yet it seems to have more body and greater warmth. In essence, it sounds more real.

In my experience, it is only the equally old Reiner/RCA account that comes close sonically or interpretatively to the Beecham, the Reiner a recording also made better, incidentally, in its own remastering (JVC XRCD). So, yes, a couple of remasterings take high sonic honors in this work: HDTT (Beecham) and JVC (Reiner).

All told, Beecham's account on HDTT (or EMI, but I prefer the sound of the newer HDTT) is one of the best recordings of this music on the market. Could I recommend the recording any more strongly? Hardly.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.


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

1 comment:

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa