Rare Rimsky-Korsakov, outstandingly performed and recorded
Reviewed in the United States on 3 May 2014
Rimsky-Korsakov has always been considered one of the great "colorists" or orchestrators, along with Ravel, in classical music. His nationalistic style and colorful use of Russian legends, fairytales and folk music is the basis of much of the music on this CD collection. Rimsky-Korsakov's brilliant use of timbre, sonority, harmony, rhythm and chordal progressions in depicting these works give one a feeling of a painting or book come to life. He was almost unrivaled in his orchestration techniques (orchestration means arranging the original music, which is almost always composed on piano, for the orchestra's instruments or group of instruments). In college, Rimsky-Korsakov's book "Principles of Orchestration" was required reading for those of us, including myself, pursuing a Music Theory and Composition degree, along with other books. In addition to his own compositions, Rimsky-Korsakov orchestrated Borodin's opera "Prince Igor" (after Borodin's death); César Cui's "William Ratcliff" and re-orchestrated quite a bit of Modest Mussorgsky's music, which at the time was seen as a bit "rough hewn", including "Night on Bald Mountain" and the opera "Boris Godunov".
Rimsky-Korsakov's youth started out quite differently though. He was born the son of a retired civil governor in a family also distinguished by its naval connections. Like his older brother (who became Admiral), he was enrolled at the Naval Cadet School in St. Petersburg, eventually graduating as an officer into the Imperial Russian Navy in 1862 (the Czars were in power then). His ship was deployed on a three year cruise, visiting such places as London, New York, various North and South American locations as well as the Mediterranean. Upon returning back to Russia, Rimsky-Korsakov was able to obtain a position as Inspector of Russian Naval Bands, which allowed him much more time to compose. Resigning his naval commission eventually, he was able to direct all his energies into composing, mostly operas; 15 of them to be exact, over a period of time. And that's where this CD comes in.
One of Rimsky-Korsakov's operas, "Mozart and Salieri" became the basis of the competition seen in the movie "Amadeus" between Mozart and Salieri. Not many people, including classical music musicians and aficionados, are familiar with Rimsky-Korsakov's operas. This compilation represents the orchestral, or non-singing, parts of each opera distilled into a three to five part suite per opera. For comparison, it would be like having Wagner's non-singing, orchestral music from his operas recorded into an orchestral suite. The advantage here, besides the obvious of not having to listen to 15 operas, is that one gets the distillation and essence of the music, and in particular, the "flavor" of each opera. Personally, I think Rimsky-Korsakov was a better writer for instruments than the voice, although that is not to knock his operatic writing and that is just my opinion. Having seen his operas "Mlada" and "Sadko" live, is quite a treat for the eyes as well as ears. The clear advantage in this particular recording is having the estimable and prolific Estonian conductor Neemi Jarvi and the Scottish National Orchestra (now promoted to Royal Scottish National Orchestra), perform this music. Having studied at the Leningrad State Conservatory under Rabinovich and Mravinsky (Estonia was a part of the Soviet Union then) provided Jarvi with an excellent grounding in Russian musical literature and interpretation. Neemi Jarvi owns the original (not copies) manuscripts of all 15 of Rimsky-Korsakov's operas and has publicly stated he will perform them anytime, anyplace. So it's fair to say that Neemi Jarvi has a pretty good insight into the operas of Rimsky-Korsakov. The Scottish National Orchestra plays with precision, flair, panache, profundity and joy. This particular CD helped to propel them in the international spotlight, although their Sibelius recordings with Sir Alexander Gibson just prior to this one merit considerable attention as well and was highly recommended by the international press and the Sibelius Society, an organization devoted to Sibelius' music.
As for Rimsky-Korsakov's music on this CD set, it is quite breathtaking in composition and orchestration. The heart-felt melodies in "Christmas Eve" are moving and, in particular, his orchestration of the section entitled "Ballet of the Stars", with the instruments creating the twinkling effect of distant stars leaves me awestruck and envious. "The Snow Maiden", an opera about a snow fairy, employs delightful musical effects to create the sound of birds in the "Dance of the Birds" section. The section "Tsar Berendy" immediately after the "Birds" section provides Russian flavored melodies (Rimsky-Korsakov, like England's Vaughan-Williams, compiled and edited much of his country's folk music). And the final section of the Snow Maiden, "Dance of the Tumblers" provides a raucous and joyful ending to this operatic suite. Tchaikovsky, early in his career, also composed a version of the Snow Maiden, scored for mezzo-soprano, tenor and chorus as well as orchestra. Though not as popular and well-known as Rimsky-Korsakov's version (at the time and even now), it is nonetheless very entertaining and recommended and also available on Chandos with Neemi Jarvi and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, in a wonderful performance. Other operatic suites on this collection that stand out include "Mlada", a complex opera about an imaginary 9th century kingdom. Rimsky-Korsakov had attended the first Russian performance of Wagner's Ring opera, along with his pupil Alexander Glazunov. Wagner's music had greatly influenced Rimsky-Korsakov, and Mlada was written under this influence after attending Wagner's Ring. A musically "darker" and more "serious" piece, it nonetheless ends the operatic suite on this CD with the magnificent and uplifting "Procession of the Nobles", a somewhat martial and grand imperial piece that has wonderfully scored brass and percussion parts (the tympani is played chromatically). This is one of those "lift you up" pieces that you will want to be play louder than normal. Other notable and famous Rimsky-Korsakov students include Igor Stravinsky, of whom one can hear much of his teacher's influence in his "The Firebird" ballet; Ottorino Respighi, who also, in his Roman triptych compositions (Roman Festivals, Fountains of Rome & Pines of Rome), shows his teacher's influence; Serge Prokofiev and Anatoly Lyadov, to name just a few. Additional standouts, really they are all wonderful, include "The Invisible City of Kitezh", with music ranging from delicate (the forest scene with Fevroniya and the birds and beast) to climactic and powerful(the Battle of the Kershenets) to the Golden Cockerel (a work based on Pushkin's satire) which was thought to reflect poorly on Tzar Nicholas II and the conduct of the Russian-Japanese war (Russia lost), and which was banned from further performance. There's so much music to go into detail on every piece here, that is would be difficult to do so without elongating my review any further than it is. If your knowledge of Rimsky-Korsakov's music is limited to Scheherazade, Russian Easter Overture, Capriccio Espagnol or The Flight of the Bumble Bee, which are excellent works, get to know more of this musically colorful and original Russian composer. In particular, if you like Scheherazade's oriental and mysterious flavor, you will enjoy this disk.
I purchased the original 3CD set back in 1985, making it one of my very first CD purchases. Although I cannot speak to the newly 24/92 remastered version yet (which I have just purchased) on 2 CD's, the previous and original 3 CD version (digitally recorded and mastered), is to this day, one of Chandos' best recordings ever, from a technical standpoint. In fact, the "Processions of the Nobles" from the opera "Mlada" in this CD was used by some famous classical music stations as a live, on-air test of their equipment's functionality back in the '80's. The clarity, soundstage, bass energy and almost limitless dynamics, especially in Invisible City of Kitezh, where one can tell no dynamic compression was used as it builds from a soft passage (marked ppp in the score) to a very loud crescendo (marked fff in the score), places this CD in the pantheon of Chandos' recording library. It also makes an excellent hi-fi system test disk when auditioning (or showing off) equipment (Hint: The entire "Snow Maiden Suite" and Mlada's "Procession of the Nobles" are excellent choices for this purpose). The Scottish National Orchestra's concert hall in Glasgow, Scotland, was the recording venue and it sounds magnificent! As another reviewer mentioned, the performance and recording quality give one the impression of a live performance.
Very highly recommended, among my favorite CD's of many and a worthy addition to one's music library. One never grows tired of listening to this music and I hope that you'll enjoy your time discovering it as I did.
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