Rimsky-Korsakov: Sheherazade Op. 35
Jonathan Crow, violin
Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Peter Oundjian
Chandos CHSA 5145 (45:20)
One of the most outstanding features of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade is the brilliance of its orchestration. But that is not surprising considering that the composer wrote the book on it. Yes, that’s right he literally wrote a book on orchestration. Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was a Professor of orchestration at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and began writing the Principles of Orchestration in 1873. He never finished the book but it was finally published after his death in 1922. The book is full of excellent insights and technical discussions and uses dozens of examples. The book would probably be more widely used if the examples weren’t all drawn from the composer’s own works, many of them still little-known today.
Sheherazade, according to the composer, was conceived as “an Oriental narrative suggesting the fairy tale wonders of the Arabian Nights.” The story goes that the Sultan Shakriar believed all women to be ultimately unfaithful and had each of his wives executed after the wedding night. Sheherazade staves off execution by telling stories that hold the Sultan’s attention. Depending on your point of view, this tale is either charming or appalling. Best to avoid thinking of modern parallels and focus instead on the music.
The piece opens with a fierce and commanding theme meant to represent the Sultan followed by much gentler music played by a solo violin representing the storyteller Sheherazade. Throughout the work the solo violin reappears to introduce or comment on each story. The composer makes no attempt to tell detailed stories, but offers instead titles for each of the four movements simply meant to give the listener a point of departure for his own imagination.
This is the first recording by the TSO under its new contract with Chandos. At this point it is hard to be sure whether this is a TSO project or a Peter Oundjian project. Oundjian has already made several recordings for Chandos with his other band, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
In any case, both conductor and orchestra make a very positive impression in Sheherazade. Oundjian shapes the music with passion and affection and pulls off some powerful climaxes. He is not afraid to go all out when the music requires it. But Oundjian is also a man who attends to details. The precision of the playing is first-class.
Rimsky’s score abounds in virtuoso opportunities for principle players in the orchestra and it is a joy to hear the TSO musicians show off. It is the concertmaster who gets the most opportunities and Jonathan Crow clearly demonstrates why he is such an asset to the orchestra. His playing features fine technique, beautiful tone, and a real sense of poetry. The same could be said of so many others including clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas, bassoonist Michael Sweeney, trumpeter Andrew McCandless and trombonist Gordon Wolfe. It is not clear from the album booklet who played the snare drum but that fine musician deserves kudos for his or her work in the last movement. Speaking of the last movement the brass playing is spectacularly good. It is so good I began to think of comparisons with the Adolph Herseth-led Chicago Symphony brass section in the classic Reiner recording from 1960.
In short, this is a terrific performance. But I wish I could be so positive about the recording. Generally speaking, the sound is hard-edged, recalling the steely sounding digital CDs of the early 1980s. It lacks warmth, especially in the bass. Whether this is primarily the fault of the engineers or Roy Thomson Hall, I can’t say.
Another drawback is the aural perspective. Every section of the orchestra is in your face. There is none of the front to back perspective one gets in the best concert halls. I love to hear the brass let loose but I want to hear the rest of the orchestra too, at the same time.
One final caveat: why is there so little music on this CD? Record buyers expect more than 45 minutes on a CD when there is room for up to 75 minutes. Nearly every other modern recording of Sheherazade has a substantial filler item.
For Something More…
For me Leopold Stokowski has made the finest recordings of Sheherazade (or Scheherazade as most people prefer to spell it). There are several with the Philadelphia Orchestra (1927 and 1934) and one that I particularly enjoy with the Philharmonia Orchestra from 1951. Stokowski took liberties with the score – didn’t he always? – but what he added makes the piece even better. Listen to what he does with the basses and cellos in the final bars. By adding some dynamic markings he gives the music truly moving eloquence. Not to mention the tone quality he could get out of a string section.
The afore-mentioned Reiner recording on RCA is still a wonder both for the quality of playing and the superb audio quality. There are also several thrilling performances of Sheherazade available on YouTube. In one of them Gergiev conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in a concert from the 2005 Salzburg Festival. Another performance available on a EuroArts DVD features Neeme Järvi with the Berlin Philharmonic in a Waldbühne concert. Järvi brings out all the character of the music and adds to the precision and excitement of the playing by positioning the snare drum far forward in the middle of the orchestra.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration is available free of charge online at www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/33900. For really conscientious students and music-lovers the musical examples are all there too.
Paul E. Robinson