Rimsky-Korsakov: Sheherazade, Op. 35; The Tale of Tsar Saltan Suite

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COMPOSERS: Rimsky-Korsakov
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Sheherazade, Op. 35; The Tale of Tsar Saltan Suite
PERFORMER: Maria Larionoff (violin); Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
CATALOGUE NO: Naxos 8.572693

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Like Charles Dutoit in his recent version of Sheherazade (on Onyx), Gerard Schwarz has the benefit of bright digital sound, but unfortunately the comparisons don’t end there: both conductors often seem unwilling to allow the music the flexibility it needs to live and breathe fully. Maria Larionoff imbues her violin solos with some feeling, and there is excellent work from the wind principals, but the ebb and flow of the waves in the first movement obstinately fails to materialise. In the second movement, there’s the opposite problem: changes of tempo are misjudged and awkward, leading to an unsettled feeling.
 
Schwarz is more in the groove in the romantic portrayal of the ‘Young Prince and Princess’, where there is some delicious, but not overindulgent string playing, and the rhythmic pliability is much more natural and organic. And in the finale the pacing is also more sure-footed, though there’s a lack of sheer orchestral power at the climaxes – something that’s revealed mercilessly by the recording quality.
 
In the less familiar Tsar Saltan Suite, there’s greater vibrancy and feeling for the music, helped by a stronger string presence in the balance. Tempos click into place effortlessly, and the lapping figure which represents the sea comes across with more character than in Sheherazade. Perhaps the month between the sessions found the performers on a better day: recorded slightly later still, the Flight of the Bumblebee is even more beguiling. Martin Cotton