My mother turned 90 this year, although she barely knew it. Somehow it just seemed another marker in her life as a survivor – widowed for 50 years, working well into her 80s – and then there was that summer of 1970, when she saw me off to Europe, checked herself into the hospital, had a radical mastectomy, and told me only when I returned. Hers was a tough generation.
One of her values I managed to avoid was her taste in music. She had no use for any piece that wasn't a mild diversion, while I've always felt that music should aspire to more – intense introspection, insight into the human condition, a window to eternity – challenging stuff like that. Yet, we never fully escape our roots.
One of my "guilty pleasures" she might have enjoyed is
That story merely enfolds Rimsky's work. Each of its four movements originally was labeled with one of Scheherazade's tales, and is unified by two primary themes heard at the very outset. The first suggests the Sultan, brusque in unison brass and strings at the outset (perhaps suggesting the stern Sultan) but then constantly transformed to reflect his growing enchantment. The other is a gorgeous refrain consistently heard in the high register of a solo violin, often with harp accompaniment, which Rimsky identified with Scheherazade narrating each of her fanciful tales to conquer the Sultan with her sweet guile:
Rimsky later regretted the descriptive titles and insisted that his themes were purely material for free musical development, intertwining and unifying the movements,
Scheherazade was not Rimsky's first foray into Arabian legend.
A moderate success during his lifetime,
That Rimsky could have constructed a compelling yet wide-ranging 45-minute work out of such thin thematic material attests to his extraordinary skill as an orchestrator, for which he was famed, although not without controversy. Following their composers' deaths, Rimsky reworked three key masterworks in the evolution of Russian opera. The steepest challenge was Alexander Borodin's Prince Igor, which had to be assembled from incomplete sketches, with substantial missing sections written from scratch. (In a phenomenal feat of memory, Glazunov produced the overture from having heard Borodin, who had never written it down, play it years before.) Alexander Dargamizhky's The Stone Guest and Modeste Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, though, had already been produced, yet Rimsky felt compelled to restyle them. In his autobiography, he detailed (and defended) his motivation for rewriting Boris – while saluting it as original, talented and alive, Rimsky cited its "absurd, incoherent harmonies, ugly part writing, illogical modulation" and overall "technical incompetence" and felt that these flaws had to be corrected to gain the public appreciation it deserved. While critics were outraged that Rimsky dared tamper with acknowledged, if flawed, masterworks, the quality of his work is hard to deny, and even today his version often is performed and recorded. To his credit, though, Rimsky made sure that the original materials were deposited in a public archive to be preserved for future reference, study and use.
The instrumentation of his own work, though, is universally praised – including by Rimsky, who never let modesty interfere with self-appraisal. In his Principles of Orchestration treatise, Rimsky emphasized the importance of orchestration as "part of the very soul of the work – a work is thought out in terms of the orchestra, certain tone colors being inseparable from it in the mind of the creator and native to it from the hour of its birth." He took great offense at critics who praised his Capriccio Espagnole as magnificently orchestrated, insisting instead that it was a brilliant composition for orchestra: "The change of timbres, felicitous choice of melodic designs and figuration patterns, exactly suiting each kind of instrument, brief virtuoso cadenzas, the rhythm of the percussion instruments, etc., constitute the very essence of the composition and not its garb." Indeed, Rimsky came to view and disparage other composers from that perspective. Thus, despite his great admiration for Beethoven's "countless leonine leaps of imagination," Rimsky felt that "his technique remains much inferior to his titanic conception." He regarded Haydn as the father of modern orchestration and dismissed all predecessors as "too old fashioned to be a valuable guide." He even turned on his compatriots: "Deficient technique is the regrettable specialty of the Russian school." Igor Stravinsky, one of his last students, recalled that Rimsky taught form and orchestration together, as integral parts of a single course of study.
Others came to praise Rimsky's work as a practical textbook of orchestral technique. Rachmaninoff viewed his handling of instrumental sound painting in meteorological terms: "When there is a snowstorm, the flakes seem to dance and drift. When the sun is high, all instruments shine with an almost fiery glow. When there is water, the waves ripple and splash audibly throughout the orchestra … ; the sound is cool and glassy when he describes a calm winter night with glittering starlit sky." In Scheherazade, with its varied evocations of human activity amid nature, Rimsky exploited the full scope of his skill with extraordinary balances and textures, providing frequent solos and varying the number of players of a particular instrument. While Rimsky is considered an exemplar of Russian style, his greatest influence transcended the national music he strove to advance – his imaginative, transparent sonorities were a primary component of the French impressionist sound and can be heard throughout much of the twentieth century, including Stravinsky's variegated career, ranging from his early ballets through his neoclassical period and beyond.
It's ironic that Scheherazade and the dazzling Capriccio Espagnole, which bursts with the flavor of Spain, are Rimsky's two most popular works, although they are anomalies in his deeply nationalistic focus.
Devotion to the advancement of Russian culture was central to Rimsky's being. He was one of "The Five," a group of young rebellious composers who sought to develop uniquely Russian music. Their hero was Mikhail Glinka, who had single-handedly founded the Russian school by investing his 1836 opera A Life for the Czar with Russian spirit, psychology and style. Their leader was Mily Alekseyevich Balakirev, a despotic, highly opinionated but hugely talented natural musician who saw no need for formal training and tried to mold the others to his taste. Despite their enthusiasm and confidence, the others all had careers apart from their avocation of music – Borodin was a chemist and Rimsky, Mussorgsky and César Cui were military officers. Tchaikovsky later described the Five as "very gifted but impregnated with the most horrible presumptuousness and a purely amateur conviction of their superiority to all other musicians in the universe." Yet they continued to blaze the path of Glinka by defying Eurocentric fashion and academic constraint to create a truly national music imbued with the jagged rhythms of native folksong, the cadences of the Orthodox Church and the stories and characters of Russian folklore and literature.
Yet Rimsky's adulation of Balakirev and his principles soon soured. The catalyst was his appointment at age 27 as professor of composition and instrumentation at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, which sought to freshen its faculty. Before that, after six years of naval officer training, he had embarked on a three-year cruise of world-wide maneuvers, where he was exposed to a wide variety of musical cultures and became immersed in Berlioz's treatise on orchestration. He then was made Inspector of Naval Bands, where he explored the instruments' qualities and became familiar with practical aspects of performance. Even so, he freely admitted his inexperience.
Having joined academia and discovering its broad outlook, Rimsky drifted away from the Five toward another circle that coalesced around M. P. Belaiev, a wealthy merchant music lover who ultimately would publish the score of Scheherazade. As Rimsky later recalled, he traded revolution for progression, extended his roots back to Palestrina, renounced his ardent disdain of the emerging Wagnerian style for a willingness to learn and absorb, replaced his intolerance with eclecticism and tempered his creativity with technical knowledge. The Five considered all this an act of betrayal, but to the conservative Tchaikovsky, Rimsky had "discovered that denial of authority was nothing but ignorance, and was overcome by despair when he realized how many unprofitable years he had wasted and that he was following a road that led nowhere." The result of his aesthetic journey was an eclectic yet fundamentally Slavic style that spread insular Russian musical culture throughout the world
Among the duties Rimsky was expected to assume upon his appointment at the Conservatory was to lead its orchestra, even though he had never even rehearsed an ensemble in his life and was terrified at the prospect. As with his other academic duties, he learned the craft quickly, largely by instinct and with great facility. He soon came to conduct many concerts, specializing in his own works and those of his compatriots. Yet Tchaikovsky considered him helpless on the podium. Stravinsky agreed, attributing Rimsky's podium struggles to poor eyesight and total absorption in listening, so that he gave no direction to his orchestra. Fortunately, others have triumphed in recording his work, and particularly the sonic splendors of Scheherazade.
The Ballets Russes Orchestra, led by their regular conductor Ernest Ansermet, cut the first recording of Scheherazade in New York in 1916 during an American tour. Although drastically abridged to two four-minute 78 rpm sides (now on a Lys compilation), the playing has wonderful lilting spirit and the recording quality is extraordinarily rich and detailed for its time, displaying the characteristic balance and proportion that would be a hallmark throughout Ansermet's 52-year career on records. His swift, steady pace, while perhaps less compelling in the concert hall, is well suited to the metric regularity needed by dancers. Ansermet later would record the full score twice – in 1954 in remarkably good early stereo (but released at the time only in mono) with the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris (now on EMI), and again in 1960 with his own Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Decca). Both are nicely poised and balanced to convey the score with an absolute minimum of personal intrusion or "interpretation."
In 1920 another abridgement appeared at the opposite end of the interpretive spectrum, far removed from the realm of ballet, when Albert Coates and the London Symphony Orchestra cut nearly complete second and fourth movements for Columbia. As with all of this remarkable conductor's recorded legacy, it's colorful, atmospheric and brims with personality, although the orchestra (or as much of it as could fit into the cramped acoustic "studio") is barely able to keep pace with its leader's impulsive touches. Thus, at the very outset of its long history of distinguished recordings, these two pioneering ventures established the interpretive extremes within which the others would range. Closing out the acoustic era, Eduard Morike and the Berlin State Opera Orchestra cut a nearly complete Scheherazade for Parlophone in April, 1924 (but abridging the middle movements to fit on two sides each). Treading an interpretive ground between the steadiness of Ansermet and the volatility of Coates, the first two movements are exquisitely tender, while the others are somewhat lacking in dramatic impact.
The dawn of the electrical era saw the release of two fine recordings of the complete score. Oscar Fried was known as a compulsive and temperamental conductor, and indeed many of his recordings are among the most viscerally thrilling ever recorded, including a wildly reckless Symphonie Fantastique, a remarkably impulsive Mahler Resurrection and the fastest Tchaikovsky Sixth on record. His 1928 Berlin Philharmonic Scheherazade (Koch CD) is an altogether different kind of surprise – genial, patient and smoothly blended, with portamento (sliding between notes) adding an overall aura of graciousness, and steady tempos broken only by occasional sforzandos and pauses for structural accent, all registered well with a wide dynamic range, albeit in a bass-shy recording. Only in the finale does a hint of Fried's expected iconoclasm emerge, as he accelerates toward the climax to prepare for a marked contrast with the beautific ending.
The prior year gave us the first of Leopold Stokowski's five recordings of the complete score. The most widely available is his 1964 Phase Four taping with the London Symphony, the first of the many LPs he would cut for that label. Although it was touted as a sonic marvel, even recent CD transfers can't disguise the heavy overload distortion of the climaxes. Yet, while the vibrancy of that reading and his 1975 Royal Philharmonic recording for RCA belie his age (82 and 93!), they are trumped by the greater impulse and ardent emotion of his 1927 Philadelphia Orchestra set of 78s, which reflects his relative youth with far faster pacing (39 minutes overall, compared to the later versions' 46). All the Stokowski recordings boast beautifully shaped phrasing, rich sonority, strong tempo changes, full-blooded climaxes, free-wheeling solos, and – alas – tampering with Rimsky's sacrosanct orchestration, as when he trots out a xylophone to reinforce unison wind figurations (12 bars after N of the second movement – 7:20 in the 1927 recording; 8:10 in the 1964). But despite the quirks, both welcome and dubious, Stokowski ushered in an era of unabashed personality that would inform many of the readings to come.
Actually, the very first electrical Scheherazade was cut by Eugene Goossens and the Royal Opera House Orchestra of Covent Garden for HMV in late 1925. Despite its overall excellence, it remains more a curiosity than a complete realization, as each movement was heavily pruned to fit on a single four-minute 78 rpm side. Even so, despite excision of nearly two-thirds of the score, its essence remains surprisingly intact, and while lacking the time needed to build atmosphere Gooseens refuses to rush the pace to cram in as much of the music as possible. In a sense, the condensation anticipated our modern era of short attention spans.
Of other Scheherazades on 78, perhaps the most notable and historically important is by Pierre Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony (RCA, 1942). Monteux had preceded Ansermet as conductor of the Ballets Russes, joining the year after the premiere and leading the score often during his tenure. Philip Hale, a contemporary critic, cited Monteux's readings as "sensuous and exuberant with licentious revelry" compared to others' calculated perfection. At under 39 minutes, it's the fastest on record, plunging forward with an irresistible life-force. Yet the middle movements seem rushed and breathless, shorn of their needed repose, even though the third bounds forward with exceptional rhythmic vitality and even a hint of unaccustomed wry humor. The playing is committed and the recording sufficiently detailed to project a strong feeling for the interaction of the instrumental choirs. A stereo remake with the London Symphony (RCA) is considerably more relaxed.
The LP era marked not only a further improvement in the fidelity so crucial to appreciating Rimsky's textures, but freedom from the need to change sides every few minutes that disrupted the enchantment of Scheherazade's musical tales. Among the finest mono LPs was by Eduard van Beinum with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw (Decca, 1956). His earnest steadfast vigor belies his reputation as stolid and uninspired, yet his extreme precision and adherence to the score merits Alan Sanders' quip that he was "high fidelity in the concert hall." Speaking of fidelity, the sound itself is crisp and clear, even though highs are exaggerated, allowing the shimmering textures to emerge from the famed blended sound of the Concertgebouw.
Scheherazade's precisely calculated interplay of instrumental sounds was ideally suited for stereo, and the emergence of that technology in the late 'fifties brought a half-dozen superb recordings that still dominate the pack.
The runaway favorite among most critics is the recording by Sir Thomas Beecham, leading the Royal Philharmonic (EMI, 1957). As a reflection of his mature attitude toward his musicians, he didn't impose his will but encouraged theirs to emerge. Thus, he imparts a lovely, relaxed, improvisational feeling throughout – not only in the solo turns, but in the smooth unanimity of the ensemble as well. Judging from an LP issued by High Fidelity magazine, his rehearsal technique was nearly non-existent, inspiring his players' devotion largely through minimal repetition and loads of jocular stories. Yet, beneath his relaxed demeanor was a focus that yielded great substance. At his frequent best he had an instinct for finding a magic level where emotion was sublimated into purest art, and so it is here – a wondrous balance of feeling and grace, passion and control, in which we get a sense of organic, evolutionary development that vitalizes the process of translating a score into sound. The original American Angel LP of this performance boasted an exceptionally gorgeous Marc Chagal cover.
Close behind the Beecham in most critics' affections seems to be Fritz Reiner's classic account with the Chicago Symphony (RCA, 1960). Yet in comparison Reiner seems chaste and somewhat distant. The playing is extremely accurate (except for a sloppy exposed string attack at 4:16 of the second movement), balances are superb, the soloists play with some sense of freedom, accents are precise, but there's no real sense of atmosphere. Yet, to the extent that sensual feeling emerges (and it certainly does in the middle movements especially), it arises wholly from the score, and thus serves as a tribute to the composer rather than to interpretive personality added by a conductor or orchestra.
Like Rimsky, Hermann Scherchen was largely self-taught and thus perhaps had a special appreciation for the composer's achievement. Although his studio output is frustratingly uneven and he cranked out many merely dutiful assignments, his 1957 Westminster Scheherazade with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (now on DG), while often overlooked, is truly provocative, constantly challenging conventional readings with deeply heartfelt insight. The ensemble can get shaky and the percussion in the third and fourth movements is outrageously loud, but the flaws draw you in and force you to work with him. Scherchen constantly focuses attention on the components, so that each section radiates its own personality. Not every choice seems to work, but this recording can grip even the most jaded listener into hearing Scheherazade anew, joining Scherchen as he dares to blaze new paths with searching intelligence. Apart from its musical glories, the Scherchen recording merits recognition for the tackiest marketing imaginable – perhaps to trick a few unsuspecting kids, Westminster's successor reissued it in the late 'sixties as an LP with a ghastly cover titled I Dig Rimsky-Korsakoff, and again with a cryptic minimalist photo of a dark ribbon and well-burned candle that undoubtedly was intended to be thought-provoking but whose symbolism eludes me.
Another overlooked personal favorite is by Antal Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (Mercury, 1958). Like Ansermet and Monteux, Dorati had a strong pedigree in ballet and he glories in incisive, propulsive rhythms. While a fairly swift 40 minutes, the reading is largely objective, but the real star is the recording itself. Made in Mercury's famed "Living Presence" system using only three well-placed microphones, the sound is spectacularly vivid, enabling us to hear the fullness of the massed strings, the breath of a solo flute and sharp cutting brass, but without the sense of unnatural exaggeration achieved on a mixing board with multiple spotlight mics. The impact is augmented by the atmosphere of the venue, especially in a hair-raising fourth movement climax and the long natural decay that follows. The playing of the sadly underrated orchestra and all its soloists is superb. Above all else, though, this recording was the first to compel appreciation for the splendor of Rimsky's extraordinary skill and inventiveness as an orchestrator.
Leonard Bernstein entered the stereo sweepstakes with his 1957 recording with the New York Philharmonic (Columbia/Sony) that takes an overtly romantic approach, leaning into phrases and separating them with slight retardandos, widening the dynamics, choosing extreme tempos both severe and rapid, and adding extra punch to sforzandos, all to enhance the inherent drama. At the same time, he tends to push accompanying figures into the background so as not to interfere with the display of lush melody. The engineering provides a slightly rough edge that abets a sense of immediacy and commitment. Bernstein joins the first and second movements together and again the third and fourth, and to discourage any attempt to play them individually the original LP had no band to separate them. (Bernstein might have wanted to join the second and third as well, had an LP side change not intervened, and the Sony CD transfer barely pauses between them.) Curiously, the final violin phrase soars continuously upward, and thus varies from the jagged progression indicated in the score.
Bernstein's label-mate Eugene Ormandy has the same joining of movements and ends with the same variant (and even has a strikingly similar cover photo) in his 1962 Philadelphia Orchestra recording, which remains a top choice for those seeking a Scheherazade of sheer beauty (Hi, Mom!). While the trumpets blare, the piccolo pierces and climaxes soar, the sound is firmly anchored in the Philadelphia's famed lush string section. The original LP was billed as a "Stereo Sound Spectacular" and depicted the orchestra's seating chart on the top half of the back cover. Although the stereo spread doesn't quite comport with the diagram (the harp is shown at the far left but sounds more centrally located), it's a convincing sonic image with rich concert-hall ambiance. The smooth, blended sound and neutral interpretation present the full inherent musical values – an unchallenging approach, yet thoroughly apt for a work that creates its own ample allure.
After the initial surge, there have been dozens of fine stereo Scheherazades, but one in particular is truly unique, making all the others, no how deliberate, seem downright swift compared to the glacial pace typical of Sergiu Celibidache in his later years. His 1984 Munich Philharmonic concert Scheherazade (EMI) unfolds at over 54 minutes, by far the slowest on record. (His 1960 Turin concert on Arkadia elapsed in a standard 44 minutes.) At this pace, momentum, emotional impact and interpretive attitude cede to abstract deconstruction in which the score's organic evolution becomes clear and its accumulation of details can be scrutinized. Climaxes are muted and intensity of expression is lost while nuance and components rise to focal points. Yet, despite the seemingly dry analytic approach, the score remains undeniably seductive and even achieves a degree of transcendence as time stands still at the end of the second movement and a suggestion of urgency when the pace slightly quickens in the persistently gentle third. Most critics tend to ignore or detest Celi's approach as the antithesis of art, but he shunned the studio and defended his work as appropriate for the live unfolding of a work in concert, where impressions are transient and so must be given an opportunity to be grasped in the moment. Even so, Celi's message, consistent with his Zen philosophy, seems to be that music simply exists and that slow, objective renditions should enable each listener to evoke his or her own reaction from the given elements. His is not an appropriate introduction to the glories of Scheherazade, but for those who blanch at the prospect of yet another standard rendition, this just could be a revelation.
And what of the Russians? Although Rimsky considered himself a guardian and purveyor of Russian musical tradition, and while we have a number of Scheherazades by Russian expatriot conductors leading Western orchestras, we can turn for special insight to a number of recordings by conductors and soloists who remained immersed in Russian culture and who led native ensembles.
Nikolai Golovanov had been the guiding force in Russian opera for nearly thirty years, but was summarily purged in 1952 (literally locked out of his theatre one morning), died the following year, and as a matter of political expediency was forgotten as the Soviets proceeded to rewrite Russian cultural history. But his recordings endured and recently have been resurfacing. They reveal a bold visionary, galaxies apart from Mravinsky and other staid intellectuals of his generation whose politics and art better embraced the party line and who had been touted as representing the Soviet ideal. We now can salute Golovanov's uncanny ability to invest the most bombastic warhorses (Lizst tone poems, the 1812 Overture) with stunning vitality. His 1950 Scheherazade with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra (Boheme CD) is one of those near-miraculous events that opens our ears and hearts to possibilities that transcend not only the score but the relatively timid way most other artists approach it. He indulges in huge tempo fluctuation, not only in the standard way of pacing each section but within each phrase, imparting an air of constant improvisation and invention yet suffused with an emotional logic and disarmingly natural flow. Even through the shrill and overloaded sound, we can hear how Golovanov constantly varies the textures with emphatic gestures of huge crashing cymbals, boiling tympani, pounding bass pizzicato, and outrageously commanding harp punctuation – and since this is a studio recording, these embellishments can't be shrugged off as inadvertent flukes of microphone placement in a concert hall setting. David Oistrakh joins the free-wheeling spirit with a captivating and thoroughly imposing rendition of the violin solos. Perhaps the most startling movement is the third, where Golovanov and Oistrakh transform the usually sweet, straight-forward love song into a consuming search for hints of repressed passion. In terms of sheer inspiration and interpretive prowess, Golovanov's is the most challenging and exciting Scheherazade on record.
A telling comparison is found in a 1953 recording by Issay Dobrowen, a compatriot and nearly an exact contemporary of Golovanov, but who left Russian permanently in 1922 to base his career in Scandinavia. In lieu of the raw excitement of the Bolshoi Orchestra, his disc with the English Philharmonia Orchestra reflects the trademark smooth sound of that ensemble. The score provides ample opportunity to highlight the Philharmonia's fine crop of soloists, who produce lovely flights of exquisite tone quality that the recording mix enables to stand out from the overall body of sound, yet even they generally lack much character (including the unidentified violin soloist, possibly Manoug Parikian, the Philharmonia's concertmaster at the time). Dobrowen generates a fair degree of excitement with bold tempo variation between major segments and some prominent string accents, but overall his conception is far more "Westernized" and mellow when compared to that of Golovanov.
Among other notable Scheherazades led by expatriot Russians would have to be the 1974 Angel LP by Mstislav Rostropovich and the Orchestre de Paris if only for its fabulous cover, a specially commissioned painting by Marc Chagal. Yet the performance merits musical attention as well. As one of the greatest cellists of all time, Rostropovich must have shared Rimsky's affinity for strings, which the composer considered the most robust and expressive of all the orchestral choirs and whose scoring, while full of wind solos and brass turns, invariably tends to gravitate toward and rely heavily upon the strings (as do most orchestral works). Yet, Rostropovich provides a well-balanced display that, if anything, shies away from emphasizing the celli and basses (in part due to the thin recording) and contains one sonic surprise – an uncommonly deep and reverberant gong to underline the final climax. Rostropovich does seem to transfer his accustomed freedom as a soloist to rhythmic flexibility in his work here, including outright defiance of the score when he noticeably slows the tempo of the string pizzicato bed at figures F and L of the second movement, even though Rimsky specifies a steady tempo. In this, his very first orchestral recording in the West, Rostropovich's patient 48-minute pacing and clear empathy for the score's tender moments anticipate his personal warmth and deeply empathetic presentations of the Russian romantics that became his hallmark during his 17-year tenure as leader of our National Symphony (1977 – 1994).
But back to the Russians who remained in their homeland. More than a mere trace of Golovanov's galvanizing spirit infuses two other examples of the "real thing." Vladimir Fedoseyev boasts strong credentials as an advocate of Russian musical tradition and indeed is reputed for his deep knowledge of Russian style. He led an ensemble of native instruments in indigenous music for 15 years and then for 30 more took the helm of the Moscow ensemble whose name is given variously (perhaps due to the vagaries of translation) as The Grand Orchestra of the All-Union Radio and Television or the USSR TV & Radio Large Symphony Orchestra, since renamed more simply in honor of Tchaikovsky. In any event, their 1981 recording (Allegro CD) begins inauspiciously with some interesting isolated touches (exaggerated echoing tympani rolls) and bizarre balances, yet creates an air of expectancy by rushing downbeats, which first seems an annoying sign of poor ensemble but soon creates a tense air of expectation that emerges in an astoundingly fine third movement that unfolds with an unparalleled rapid flow and breathes with a wondrous sense of fluency. That, in turn, yields to a strikingly vivid and detailed finale, with a window-rattling bass drum and a wild acceleration to the climactic shipwreck, which, in turn, magnifies the poignancy of Scheherazade's gentle conquest. Fedoseyev's subtle but brilliant artistry conceives the work not as a series of isolated impressions but a sweeping thematic whole that transcends and sacrifices the work's surface effects for a more lasting and significant impact.
A 2001 recording by Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra (Philips) has been widely praised, and with good reason – full of passion, constantly probing each phrase for incisive meaning, carefully balancing and varying each sonority, and embracing tempos both penetrating and exhilarating. The acoustic is well-blended if a bit too resonant, achieving a subtle merging of instrumental textures that might be heard in a typical concert hall seat rather than from the conductor's or "fifth row center" perspectives that most recordings emulate. The fillers present works by two of the other Five – Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia and Balakirev's Islamey (in a frantic orchestration of the fiendishly difficult piano original). For an all-Russian reading that meets modern standards of performance and recording, Gergiev's seems a fine fit.
The question remains – what to make of the amazing Golovanov reading? Despite its excellence, given the general iconoclasm of his other surviving work, it's tempting to revere Golvanov's Scheherazade as sui generis rather than as a genuine exemplar of authentic Russian interpretive tradition. Yet, dismissing it may be too facile. If we view Golovanov, Fedoseyev and Gergiev as representatives of their respective artistic generations, a clear trend emerges as sheer unbridled personality becomes attenuated, reflecting global influence that became increasingly hard to avoid and which, for better or for worse, melds unique national styles toward a less distinctive but universally acceptable moderate common ground suitable for success on the shrinking but irresistably attractive world-wide stage. In that light, as our earliest example of an all-Russian Scheherazade Golovanov's may hold the key to a genuine and strikingly bold style that can no longer be heard yet is intrinsic to the culture in which Rimsky lived and produced his art.
The best source of information about not only Rimsky but all of The Five and their era is his Chronicle of My Musical Life (tr: Judah Joffe; Knopf, 1923). Written over the course of 30 years, Rimsky concluded his account in August 1906 with a touching note: "It is without order, it is unequally detailed throughout, it is written in a wretched style, often even extremely dry; but, in compensation, it contains nothing but the truth, and this will lend it interest." With all due respect to Rimsky's judgment, his scorn is patently unwarranted (at least in the English edition). Unlike the vast bulk of composer autobiographies, this is a consistently fascinating glimpse into an entire culture in transition and upheaval, filled with cogent insight and observations that are generally modest to the point of harsh self-criticism, but always fair and of unfailing import. In an introduction to the English edition, editor Carl van Vechten notes that while Berlioz's autobiography may benefit from his literary prowess and Wagner's from his sense of drama, Rimsky's eschews their often fancifal imagination for frank honesty. All the quotations I've used but not otherwise identified are from this source.
Despite the vast changes in taste to which music is constantly subject, Rimsky is apt to be ranked below the greatest composers, and Scheherazade is likely to be snubbed by those seeking music with a serious message. Yet throughout future generations its invention and sheer beauty assure it a cherished place in the affections of all who turn to music for relief from the troubles and perplexities of their time – like my mother – and, increasingly, me. Happy birthday, Mom.
Copyright 2007 by Peter Gutmann
For a note about the illustrations, please click here.
copyright © 1998-2007 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.