Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphonies Nos 1 & 3 performed by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra

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COMPOSERS: Rimsky-Korsakov
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Rimsky-Korsakov
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1 & 3
PERFORMER: Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
CATALOGUE NO: 8.573581

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Rimsky-Korsakov’s two ‘abstract’ symphonies have always stood in the shade of the symphonic suites Antar – officially his Second – and Sheherazade, both of which develop their themes brilliantly within the four-movement form. Gerard Schwarz has already made his mark in both with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, but moving to Berlin’s very fine radio orchestra, he pulls off a trickier feat with seemingly less tractable material. The First, the precocious work of a 17-year-old naval cadet, substantially revised in 1884, has often seemed pallid compared to subsequent fantasies, while the Third, offspring of Korsakov’s attempt to acquire technique as professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory, can appear encumbered by academic counterpoint. In the First Symphony Schwarz not only demonstrates that the third movement is the earliest of 5/4 scherzos which dazzles; the rest of No. 1 is fluent and keen, with an ideal balance between a leonine quality taking greater shape in Borodin’s Second Symphony and a constant sense of forward movement. 

The Third’s Andante gets the best makeover of all: clocking in at about two minutes shorter than usual, it now comes across as a graceful dance-interlude, a kind of Scène villageoise which even sounds like Massenet or Chabrier at times. Strings are flexible enough to move from vibrato-rich melody to lean rhythmic energy, and the balances are all admirable.

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David Nice