Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov: Suites from The Snow Maiden, Mlada & Le Coq d'or – Sadko, Op. 5
Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz (conductor)
Recorded at Benaroya Hall, Seattle (March and April 2011) – 70'04
Naxos 8.572787 – Booklet in English
This is a delightful issue from first note to last. The most attractive musical moments from three of Rimsky-Korsakov's brilliant (and underrated) operas are collected together and balanced by an early tone-poem. One basks in attractive orientalist melody and harmony dressed in the most attractive orchestrations. The program progresses nicely, as well, from the early echos of Glinka and even several nods to Tchaikovsky, especially in Sadko, to the impressive prefigurations of Stravinsky's Russian nationalist ballets in Le Coq d'or, completed a mere three years before The Firebird.
Gerard Schwarz draws brilliant, agile playing from his Seattle Symphony, allowing the music to largely speak for itself. Tempos are often pulled to extremes, as in The Snow Maiden, where the "Introduction" is leisurely and supple, balanced by a growing sense of excitement in the suite's middle movements, and culminating with a rip-roaring final "Dance of the Clowns." There is nothing especially revelatory or idiosyncratic about Schwarz's interpretations, but that isn't a bad thing in this music. With an orchestra of this calibre, this music virtually plays itself.
Of prime importance is the quality of the principal woodwinds, and in this regard the Seattle musicians deliver without fail. Rimsky-Korsakov's always-flattering percussion writing, underpinning the rhythmic energy throughout much of the music, is accurately delivered and balanced throughout. If there is any reservation, it is in the occasional artificial highlighting of certain inner lines and accompanimental instruments, especially the harp in many places. Also seemingly helped in the studio are the brass, who play wonderfully, but are exaggeratedly forthright in the climaxes. While this isn't a "natural" sound, it is certainly thrilling, and the "Lithuanian Dance" and "Cortège" from Mlada are a brass-lover's paradise.
At this price point, anyone interested in this repertoire should not hesitate. Neeme Järvi's Chandos recordings of the same repertoire feature equally impressive playing and perhaps a more natural concert-hall acoustic, and are now available at mid-price. Likewise, Kees Bakels' superbly consistent Rimsky-Korsakov cycle with his Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (on BIS) are must-haves, but accumulating this exact panoply of repertoire requires a more substantial investment.
Marcus Karl Maroney