RESPIGHI: Belkis, Queen of Sheba (orchestral suite); HINDEMITH: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber; FLORENT SCHMITT: The Tragedy of Salome (orchestral suite) – Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra/Sascha Goetzel – Onyx 4048, 77:32 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

Three most colorful and exotic orchestral works, coming from a previously unknown symphonic source and in excellent sonics though not hi-res. The Turkish orchestra has been active since 1999 and is supported by a leading industrial conglomerate in Turkey, who also encourages ventures in the fields of culture and the arts. They have now become one of the most promising symphonic ensembles in all of Europe. Among the leading soloists for their current season are Isabelle Faust, Daniel Hope and Denis Matsuev.

Belkis only has a couple other recordings, although it is one of the most picturesque of works from the composer of the Roman Trilogy. It was originally a lavish ballet score for nearly 1000 performers, but shortly before he died Respighi got as far as rearranging four sections of it as a more manageable orchestral suite. The War Dance section is a primitive-sounding ritual with drums, brass fanfares and gongs. And the closing Orgiastic Dance lives up to its title with a barrage of sound and rhythm.  Belkis was recorded nine years ago by Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra on Reference Recordings.  The two competing versions are very similar, with perhaps a slight fidelity edge to the Reference disc, perhaps due to its HDCD encoding and better preservation of ambiance.

Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis was his first major orchestral work and was also originally conceived as a ballet. Perhaps due to the tuneful melodies of Von Weber – so different from Hindemith’s usual stolid melodic writing – it’s long been my favorite orchestral work of his.  There’s also the vivid and colorful settings he gave the Von Weber tunes.  My standard recording here has been the 1953 Mercury mono LP (and now CD) by Rafael Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony, and Bernstein on Sony Classical is also a winner. While not quite as brilliant-sounding, the Istanbul players seem to bring out the Eastern European and oriental styles in the work. And the recording is less dated-sounding than either of the above – though the Living Presence discs boast gangbuster dynamics.

Schmitt was fascinated by the exotic, especially Turkish music. His Salome work is the third one on this disc which began as music for dance. He later transcribed it for full orchestra, and it became one of his best-known pieces. It tells the biblical story of Salome with exotic verve, dreamy passages, and violent emotional outbursts.  The orchestra digs into it with gusto and the sonics are about the best you can achieve via standard CD format.  The packaging and design of the album is also first-rate; I mistook at at first for an SACD, but it is not. Yet it is for some reason priced higher than many SACDs.

 – John Sunier