RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Scheherazade, Op. 35; Russian Easter Festival Overture, Op. 36 – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Charles Dutoit – Onyx 4064, 60:17 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***:
Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic offer up solidly respectable versions of Rimsky’s colorful warhorses. These are not warhorses of a different color, though. While not routine, these performances have nothing new to say about these works, and much has been said of them over the years.
Scheherazade was among the first pieces of classical music I came to know; the classic Beecham recording was one the most often played LPs in my big brother’s record collection. It was a stereo spectacular for its day, supplanted a bit later by the Reiner version, which is still many listeners’ favorite. Since then, respected interpretations have appeared from many hands: Stokowski, Dorati, Ormandy, Bernstein, Kondrashin, Muti, Temirkanov, and on and on. And on. To say that Dutoit’s version enters a crowded field is a considerable understatement.
Dutoit’s tempos are on the slow side, which has its points. His Rimsky is a grander production than that of some other conductors. I compared his performance to a fairly recent one from Kees Bakels and the Malaysian Philharmonic. Hardly as august a body as the Royal Phil, the orchestra nonetheless acquits itself very well, and its leaner sound helps to propel the music better and freshen up some of those celebrated instrumental colors. Bakels’ swifter tempos help as well. The first movement of Dutoit’s Scherhazade, stretching well over a minute and a half longer, seems to drag by comparison. Some listeners may prefer the extra luxuriance: I’m not among them.
I have few objections to Dutoit’s interpretation in the later movements. The Kalander Prince is suitably dashing, the Young Prince and Princess are clearly very much in love, Sinbad’s Shipwreck is imposing, especially in Onyx’s close-up recording. Still, there is nothing to commend this over many of the rival versions available. Surprisingly, some of the prominent solos are iffy in Dutoit’s performance: the bassoon solo in the second movement is quite unsteady, as are the soft harmonics in the final violin solo. Plus, as big and commanding as the sound is, it’s hardly of audiophile quality. Orchestral timbres, including the all-important percussion, are more truthfully captured in BIS’s more distantly miked recording for Bakels and the Malaysian orchestra.
The accompanying Russian Easter Overture is an obvious disc companion. Here, too, Dutoit’s slowish tempi pay dividends in terms of added grandeur, and yet I prefer the barbaric splendor that other conductors, notably the Russians, have brought to the score with swifter tempi, a greater sense of abandon. So while slow and easy may win some races, I’m afraid that in a wildly crowded field Dutoit’s offerings are just not competitive.
— Lee Passarella