I just noticed that "Gramophone" on-line has no recommendation for a recording of Schéhérazade. I am stunned. I cannot fathom how a magazine with its reputation cannot have any recommendation for one of the most popular pieces of classical music. Why? The last time I saw one, and I admit it has been some time since I checked, they recommended Kiril Kondrashin and the Concertgebouw (currently on Philips 464735 coupled with Borodin's Symphony #2).
There are several ways to approach this warhorse. Some conductors convey a strictly orchestral approach, others a concerto. Stokowski delivers a sensuous concerto for orchestra. Others treat it more like a ballet, and that is what comes to mind most often as I listen to this latest addition to my collection. And an awesome addition it is! A lot is likely due to the recorded sound, which is simply stunning. I cannot think of anything equal to the rich, deep bass and yet details that are clear and crisp. And the details are abundant; I hear music I have not heard before. It is not possible to cite every single instance because of the plethora.
This is also one of the best performances I have ever heard. Some of this is thanks to the sound that provides music only hinted at in Kondrashin's recording. On the other hand, this is a darker, more "Russian" Schéhérazade than the one with the Concertgebouw. The opening is taken very slowly, almost deliberately, as if the Sultan is walking slowly into the room, scowling at the servants around the room who cower and scurry away. Then there is Schéhérazade. Here she has a deeper voice (played by Sergei Levitin, who I assume is the principal violinist of the Kirov Orchestra) than does Krebbers for Kondrashin but it is still sweet and melodic. The whole performance has the ebb and flow of the sea and the Kirov Orchestra sounds like one of the finest in the world. The festival is exciting and conjures visions of the ballet that you might have seen with Nijinsky and his troupe. I spent several evenings just enjoying the music. I usually read and write as I listen but in this case I found myself looking up from my book or notes and just listening. This was not the case with Kondrashin's Schéhérazade, which was not involving.
The couplings are lagniappes but damn good ones. I had not heard the Balakirev before. It is not particularly memorable but it is good and the Borodin is as Russian as you would want.
This Schéhérazade is significantly slower than others in my collection, including Kondrashin's. Still, there is no lack of tension and excitement. If it does not displace my first recommendation, Stokowski's London Symphony recording, that is simply because Stokowski's is X-rated by comparison and raises the hair on the back of my neck every time I listen to it. His Sultan is someone who terrifies and Erich Gruenberg is one of the most seductive Schéhérazades on record. The recorded sound was demonstration quality in its day and still is. It has long been unavailable on CD but seek it out.
For those who jump to the bottom line first, this recording is one of the finest I know. Gergiev is one of the best conductors around today. He imbues everything he plays with emotion. As Stokowski put it, "Life, emotion, or lifeless."
Copyright © 2003, Robert Stumpf II