Rimsky-Korsakov / Scheherazade / Ansermet – Not the Sound or the Performance You Want

Our Favorite Performance of Scheherazade – Ansermet with the Suisse Romande

Hot Stamper Decca and London Pressings Available Now

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In our experience this is not the recording of the work to buy, on either Decca or London. Of the two recordings by Ansermet, we much prefer the one made with the Suisse Romande to that of the Paris Conservatoire.

We did a monster shootout for this music in 2014, one we had been planning for more than two years. On hand were quite a few copies of the Reiner on RCA; the Ansermet on London (CS 6212, his second stereo recording, from 1961, not the earlier and noticeably poorer sounding recording from in 1959); the Ormandy on Columbia, and a few others we felt had shown potential.

The only recordings that held up all the way through — the fourth movement being THE Ball Breaker of all time, for both the engineers and musicians — were those by Reiner and Ansermet.

This was disappointing considering how much time and money we spent finding, cleaning and playing those ten or so other pressings.

Here it is a year later and we’re capitalizing on what we learned from the first big go around, which is simply this: the Ansermet recording on Decca/London can not only hold its own with the Reiner on RCA, but beat it in virtually any area. The presentation and the sound itself are both more relaxed and natural, even when compared to the best RCA pressings.

The emotional content of the first three movements (all of side one) under Ansermet’s direction are clearly superior. The roller coaster excitement Reiner and the CSO bring to the fourth movement cannot be faulted, or equaled. In every other way Ansermet’s performance is the one for me.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship
The Story of the Kalendar Prince

Side Two

The Young Prince and the Young Princess
Festival in Bagdad; The Sea; The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock Surmounted by a Bronze Warrior

Scheherazade

Scheherazade, completed in the summer of 1888, was given its premiere in St. Petersburg on November 3 of that year, with the composer conducting.

The score specifies a piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, tam-tam, harp, and strings.

In the late 1880s, when Rimsky-Korsakov composed Scheherazade, enormous changes were taking place in the character of concert music. More than fifty years earlier, in the Symphonie Fantastique, Hector Berlioz had provided a stunning demonstration of how the resources of the modern orchestra could be used to provide previously unimagined color content to enhance the descriptive power of dramatic music. In his second visit to Russia, toward the end of 1867, Berlioz provided an irresistible stimulus for Russian composers, who responded with particular enthusiasm—and thus began a productive Franco-Russian interpollination which, we might say, reached its symbolic peak in Maurice Ravel’s orchestral setting of Pictures at an Exhibition, which the Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned and introduced in Paris in 1922.

The year in which Rimsky completed Scheherazade was the very year in which the young Richard Strauss completed the first of his great tone poems, Don Juan, and Gustav Mahler completed the score of his First Symphony. Strauss and Mahler, of course, knew a thing or two about exploiting the orchestra to paint a picture of tell a story, and Strauss even brought out his own edition of Berlioz’s book on orchestration, but the Russians and the French were drawn to two particular sources of tales to be told that provided very conspicuous opportunities for new degrees of exploration in the world of orchestral color: fairy tales and legends in general, and more particularly tales from exotic cultures, distant in both time and place.

Like Berlioz, Rimsky wrote his own book on orchestration (in which he understandably used numerous examples from the present work) and also published his memoirs. In the latter, which he called My Musical Life, he noted that after reading the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments he conceived “an orchestral suite in four movements, closely knit by the community of its themes and motives, yet representing, as it were, a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of Oriental character.” (Let it be noted that the term “Oriental” has never meant to Europeans simply and only the Far East, as it does to most Americans, but quite specifically the lands of the Arabian Nights.)

By way of explaining the title Scheherazade, he wrote a brief introduction to be printed in the score and in the program for the work’s premiere:

The Sultan Schariar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by entertaining her lord with fascinating tales, told seriatim, for a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postponed from day to day the execution of his wife, and finally repudiated his bloody vow entirely.

Many wondrous things were related to the Sultan Schariar by the Sultana Scheherazade. For her tales she took verses from the poets and words from the songs of the people, and intermixed the former with the latter.

Beyond that, Rimsky-Korsakov provided no specific “program,” and did not even affix titles to the respective movements. The titles commonly used now were suggested to him by his colleague Anatoly Liadov; Rimsky accepted them at first, but later eliminated them from the score. In My Musical Life he wrote,

I meant these hints to direct but slightly the listener’s fancy on the path which my own fancy had traveled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of the individual listener. . . . All I had desired was that the listener, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders.

The titles have adhered, though, and audiences welcome them as guideposts to the particular stories recounted in the music. The first movement, accordingly, is known as THE SEA AND SINBAD’S SHIP. The commanding theme that opens the work is the voice of the Sultan demanding his entertainment, and the sinuous one from the violin is the voice of Scheherazade herself as she begins her tales. It has been suggested that Rimsky-Korsakov’s background as a naval officer influenced his decision to begin and end his Arabian Nights narrative on the sea.

THE TALE OF THE KALENDER PRINCE comes next. The Kalenders were a particular category of fakir, roving monks who turned up at Eastern courts and bazaars dispensing stories, magic tricks and wit in exchange for a coin or a night’s lodging. The “Kalender Prince” was one of those mendicants who turned out to be a nobleman in disguise. That some images as well as themes travel from ovement to movement in the work is indicated by the composer’s note that a piccolo motif in this episode is “a sort of sketch of Sinbad’s bird, the roc.”

The voluptuous slow movement is a tale of THE YOUNG PRINCE AND THE YOUNG PRINCESS, said to be Prince Kamar al-Zanna and Princess Budur, “created so much alike that they might be taken for twins.”

Several tales are brought together in the finale: THE FESTIVAL AT BAGHDAD; THE SEA; THE SHIP GOES TO PIECES ON A ROCK SURMOUNTED BY A BRONZE WARRIOR. Rimsky had orchestrated parts of Borodin’s opera Prince Igor just before composing Scheherazade, and the flavor of the Polovtsian Dances is felt in his evocation of the Baghdad revels. The character of the Sultan is utterly transformed at the end of the work, from the unyielding sternness with which the sequence began to a warm expansiveness born of the thousand and one nights with his incomparable story-teller.

Richard Freed

Polovtsian Dances

Like several of Russia’s 19th-century creators, Alexander Borodin was only a part-time composer. His “day job” was medicine and chemistry; in fact he achieved considerable prominence in his time for his experiments and scholarly writing.

So it is not surprising that after 18 years of off-and-on work on his magnum opus, the opera Prince Igor, he still had not finished the work when he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1887.

Borodin, with Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, was one of the group of nationalist composers known as the “Russian Five” or the “Mighty Handful,” who sought to create a distinctive school of Russian music, rooted in folksong and largely bypassing the methods of the reigning German symphonic style.

Borodin was particularly stirred by Russia’s Asian heritage, and many of his works, including the popular In the Steppes of Central Asia, include melodies and scoring with an exotic oriental flavor. So when in 1869 the prominent writer Vladimir Stassov suggested the story of the 12th-century campaign of the Russian Prince Igor against the nomadic Asian tribe of the Polovtsi as a promising subject for an opera, Borodin happily seized on the idea.

However, progress on the work was slow, maddeningly so for his fellow composers who wanted to see the opera staged. By 1875 Borodin had completed the famous Polovtsian Dances, which close Act II; the triumphant Polovtsian Khan Kontchak, having defeated Igor, magnanimously entertains him with a series of songs and dances performed by his young male slaves and the most comely Polovtsian maidens.

But the music was not orchestrated for years, and when Rimsky wanted to present the Dances in a St. Petersburg concert in early 1879, he had to work with Borodin (and another composer Anatol Liadov) in a frenzied all-night marathon to complete the scoring. The completed sheets of the score, like so much laundry, were hung up to dry on a line stretched across Rimsky’s study before they were rushed off to the printer.

In the opera, most of these dances include choral parts, which are usually dropped from concert performances. The seductive slow melody (sung by a female chorus in the original), which appears twice, is doubly well-known to us today since it became the popular song “Stranger in Paradise” in the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet, whose score is based on Borodin melodies. The four dances flow into each other in a dazzling succession building in intensity, speed, and excitement.

Janet E. Bedell

Audiophile Reissues

Audiophile Reissues of the Reiner/CSO Recording

Both the Chesky and Classic reissue pressings of LSC 2446 are just plain terrible. Embarrassingly the latter is found on the TAS List.

There is a newly remastered 33 RPM pressing of the album garnering rave reviews in the audiophile press. We will report our findings at the appropriate time.

Please note that in many of the reviews for the new pressing, the original used for comparison is a Shaded Dog. In our experience almost no Shaded Dog pressings are competitive with the later White Dog pressings, and many of them are just plain awful, as we have mentioned previously on the site. The “original is better” premise of most reviewers renders the work they do practically worthless, especially to those of us who take the time to play a wide variety of pressings, judging them on the merits of their sound, not the color of their labels.

Missing the Obvious

The RCA White Dog with the best side two in our shootout had a very unmusical side one. Since reviewers virtually never discuss the sonic differences between the two (or more) sides of the albums they audition, how critically can they be listening? Under the circumstances how can we take anything they have to say about the sound of the record seriously?

The sound is obviously different from side to side on most of the records we play, often dramatically so (as in the case of Scheherazade), yet audiophile reviewers practically never seem to notice these common, unmistakable differences in sound, the kind that we discuss in every listing on the site. If they can’t hear the clear differences in sound from side to side, doesn’t that call into question their listening skills at the most basic level?

Heavy Vinyl

For us it is this glaring obtuseness that best explains the modern reviewer’s infatuation with Heavy Vinyl. Poor reproduction or poor listening skills, it could be one or the other; most likely it’s some combination of the two (they clearly do go hand in hand, no surprise there). We can never be sure exactly where the fault lies. But do we really need to concern ourselves with the reasons for their striking lack of competence?

One final note of honesty. Even as recently as the early 2000s we were still somewhat enamored with many of the better Heavy Vinyl pressings (not the Living Stereo reissues I hasten to point out). If we had never made the progress we’ve worked so hard to make over the course of the last ten or fifteen years perhaps we would find more merit in the reissues these reviewers praise so lavishly.

We’ll never know of course; that’s a bell that can be unrung. We did the work, we can’t undo it, and the system that resulted from it is merciless in revealing the truth — that these newer pressings are second-rate at best and much more often than not third-rate or worse. Setting higher standards — no, being able to set higher standards — in our minds is a clear mark of progress. We know that many of our customers feel the same way.

 

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