Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Balakirev

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Balakirev,Borodin,Rimsky-Korsakov
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Sheherazade
PERFORMER: Kirov Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
CATALOGUE NO: 470 840-2
There are many bewitching and original touches in Gergiev’s oriental fantasy, but most are ruined by the kind of mush-making reverberation you thought had all but vanished in post-Melodiya era Russia (the mixed-up violence perpetrated on this Mariinsky Theatre performance, as it turns out, is no Soviet hangover but hails from Classic Sound). Even the first summons of the sultan doesn’t sound quite in focus; and the lashing sea and insistent rhythms in Sheherazade’s last tale are hard to listen to at this level of distortion. By contrast, Beecham’s 1958 recording remains a model of orchestral naturalness. Not that everything here would work even in the context of a live performance. Gergiev puts the tritonal strings and apocalyptic trombones of the Kalender Prince under strain; the flow of the second tale buckles a little after that, for all the beguilingly free woodwind solos. And Gergiev’s slow third movement has the young prince and princess of the doped-out on their divans, revelling too narcissistically in the Kirov string sound. But the whirl of the finale is tremendously exciting and focused throughout, with unbelievably crisp trumpet articulation. The programme looks conventional enough on paper, but the persistence of the hypnotic high E at the end of Rimsky-Korsakov’s saga into the world of Borodin’s central Asia is a clever touch. As for the Balakirev-Lyapunov Islamey, once again the sonic nightmare intrudes. What a pity. David Nice