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RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Symphonic Works – USSR State Academic Sym. Orch./ Evgeny Svetlanov – Melodiya (4 CDs)

RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Symphonic Works = Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 1; “Antar,” Symphonic Suite (Symphony No. 2), Op. 9; Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Op. 32; Sinfonietta in A Minor, Op. 31; Sadko, a Musical Tableau, Op. 5; Fantasy on Serbian Themes, Op. 6; Overture in d on Three Russian Themes, Op. 28; Fairy Tale, Op. 29; Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34; Scheherazade, a Symphonic Suite, Op. 35; Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36; At the Grave (of M. Belyayev), Op. 61; Chanson Russe (Dubinouchka), Op. 62 – Heinrich Friedheim, violin (Op. 35)/ USSR State Academic Sym. Orch,/ Evgeny Svetlanov – Melodiya MEL CD 10 02130 (4 CDs), 67:19, 63:37, 64:43, 68:48 [Distr. by Naxos] (4/29/14) ****: 

For a number of years Russian conductor Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002) had been engaged in his massive “Anthology of Russian Music” project, inscribing huge swathes of the essential Russian orchestral repertory with his patented athletic energy. The music of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) held a particular attraction for Svetlanov, who unabashedly exclaimed, “A wizard of the orchestra!.. A magician of orchestral sounds!.. How many unforgettable pages from Rimsky-Korsakov’s scores arise as I say it! The wonderful composer created a bright orchestral style which we with good reason call the Rimsky-Korsakov orchestral sound.”  The present collection derives from recordings made in the late 1960s to early 1980s.

Taking his compositional cues from operatic writing, the composer developed various genres of symphonic music for forty-five years, basing his concepts on models from Glinka and Balakirev. His style evolved slowly, often relying on tunes gathered from the Obikhod, the liturgical book of the Russian Orthodox Church, containing mandatory airs common to all churches. The ambitious Symphony No. 1 (1862) proves an anomaly – its final form was achieved in 1884 – to the early efforts at relatively smaller works for orchestra, only gradually evolving to the tableaux, fantasias, and massive four-movement symphonies and symphonic suites. All the time increasing his orchestral skills and handling of individual colors, Rimsky-Korsakov came to define the idea of Russian color in large instrumental writing.

The 1969 account of the classic Scheherazade suite, with an effective concertante contribution from first chair Heinrich Friedheim proves rewarding, given the somewhat distant sonic image, typical of Melodiya recordings. [But improved in the recent Melodiya CD reissues…Ed] The distinctive Svetlanov sound better finds representation on other labels. Still, the active motor element of the score catches our fancy, though less delicate in the tender passages than the Beecham or Reiner readings. Violinist Friedheim also appears in the solo passages of the Russian Easter Overture from 1984, which begins very slowly but soon accelerates into a dervish tempo that gives the Igor Markevitch interpretation a run for its money. The string pizzicato and triangle effects color this brilliant depiction of what Rimsky-Korsakov called the legendary and heathen aspects of the festival. By the time of the extended recapitulation, the brass, tympani, cymbals, and strings have converted into vibrant Russian rockets.

To honor the patron of the arts and benefactor Mitrofan Belyayev (d. 1903), Rimsky-Korsakov composed in 1904 his At the Grave prelude for orchestra. The score reads that the themes are funeral airs from the Obikhod with imitation of a monastic knell. The bass line becomes ever more potent, under a ponderous treble brass ostinato, achieving a kind of glorified climax. In 1905, Rimsky-Korsakov set the Dubinoushka tune for a Moscow demonstration by local workers. The addition of a mixed chorus is arbitrary, and Svetlanov does not use one. The piece rather imitates the effect of The Procession of the Nobles from Mlada.

The Rimsky-Korsakov Symphony No. 1, though heavily influenced by the tutelage of Mily Balakirev, indicated a youthful talent of rich promise. Tchaikovsky commented on the two interior movements – the Andante and Scherzo – that their novelty of form and freshness of purely Russian turns of harmony amazed everyone. . . Rimsky-Korsakov exploits the folk song About the Tatar Captivity as a source for his slow movement, which often sounds like Boris Gudonov of Mussorgsky. The outer movements do sound oriental (rec. 1983) in the manner prescribed by the Balakirev notion of Russian nationalism. The Antar Symphony (1868; rev. 1897), based on a fairy-tale by Ossip Senkovsky (1800-1858), marks a decided advance in the craft of Rimsky-Korsakov.  The Wagnerian leitmotif influence permeates the Antar suite, communicating not only specific details of the fairy-tale events but the psychology of specific emotions: curiosity, vengeance, power, and love.  The Rimsky-Korsakov alchemical ability to mix his themes finds a splendid complement in the color blends realized by Svetlanov in a live broadcast 31 March 1977.

The Symphony No. 3 (1873; rev. 1884) has remained the least admired of the Rimsky-Korsakov symphonies, the result of an academic and formulaic victory over spontaneous expression. The Germanic developmental process works out the premise of theme and counter-subject, but even the application of learned counterpoint does not relieve what Tchaikovsky detected as coldness and dryness of character. Svetlanov and his orchestra (rec. 1983) provide an energetic and sympathetic performance, which may rescue the work for aficionados of the Rimsky-Korsakov oeuvre, especially as the tunes of the first movement Moderato assai anticipate motifs in The Snow Maiden.

Rimsky-Korsakov worked on his A Minor Sinfonietta between 1879 and 1884, his original intention having been a string quartet. In three movements which originally bore program titles, the piece projects at first the character of a serenade: In the Field (Allegretto pastorale) conveys a jaunty confidence. Three wedding tunes provide the bases for the extended, contrapuntal Adagio, originally conceived as At the Hen Party. The obvious influence of the horn theme illuminates the Stravinsky Firebird ballet. The third scherzo-like movement could have served as a round dance for the wedding party, a joyfully rhythmic impulse that Svetlanov (rec. 1984) lights up with his customary lithe fire.

Disc 3 (rec. 1984), except for the fully mature Capriccio Espagnol (1887), contains youthful experiments in national character heavily indebted to Glinka and Balakirev. Sadko celebrates a Russian hero whom Rimsky-Korsakov set to music in 1887 (rev. 1892). Conceived as a symphonic fantasia, the piece builds from rhythmic and melodic fragments that depict the exploits of the hero in a sea kingdom. Ernest Ansermet used to champion this orchestral color piece consistently. The oriental tableau might be taken for music by Borodin, except the magical quality of harp writing makes it Rimsky-Korsakov. Balakirev had studied the folklore of Western Slavs and Magyars and suggested to Rimsky-Korsakov that he write his relatively brief 1867 (rev. 1889) Fantasia on Serbian Themes. Deft use of wind colors marks the rondo score, whose rich and whirling fanfares Tchaikovsky found immediately attractive. Rimsky-Korsakov demonstrates his love for Russian folk idioms in his 1866 (rev. 1880) Overture on 3 Russian Themes, with its immediate use of Glory and At the Gate, the former of which we know from Mussorgsky and the latter tune from the Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture.

A relatively ambitious composition, the Fairy Tale, Op. 29 (1879-1889) derives from the prologue to Ruslan and Ludmilla of Pushkin, which had its first musical translation from Glinka. Rimsky-Korsakov, however, does not opt for an operatic response but rather a highly lyric, bucolic musical picture that allows the listener his own imaginings. Svetlanov leads this charming folk fantasy with his consistent, epic poise, the sonority – with full kudos to the flute, violin, and clarinet solos – of which can become truly huge without relying on those Wagnerian devices that influenced the late Rimsky-Korsakov style.  Finally, the ultimate in orchestral display pieces, the Capriccio Espagnol of 1887, a brilliant exercise in national bravura – each of its five themes having its basis in folk tunes – that Tchaikovsky revered immediately upon his first hearing. Like Scheherazade, the piece sports a wonderful concertante violin par that makes us wish we had a major concerto for this instrument from Rimsky-Korsakov.

Let me reassure prospective buyers that the majority of works come to us in fine remastered sound, especially where the name M. Kozhukhova appears as the credited sound engineer. For the lover of Russian music, I recommend this set highly.

—Gary Lemco

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