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Russian Spectacular

Shanghai Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Lan Shui et al (BIS)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Russian Spectacular
Balakirev: Islamey – Oriental Fantasy (orch. Lyapunov); Borodin: Prince Igor – Polovtsian Dances Musorgsky: A Night on the Bare Mountain (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov); Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel)
Singapore Symphony Youth Choir; Shanghai Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Lan Shui
BIS BIS-2412 (CD/SACD)   67:38 mins

The singular feature in this attractive release is that all the Russian orchestral showpieces performed here are the product of collaboration between two or more composers. In the first half of the programme, Lan Shui puts his excellent Singapore Symphony through its paces in mostly enjoyable renditions of Rimsky’s arrangement of A Night on the Bare Mountain and Ravel’s deft orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition. I say mostly enjoyable because there are moments here and there in both works where perhaps conductor and orchestra might have taken even more risks, especially in pinpointing the grotesque nature of Musorgsky’s writing. I’m thinking particularly of ‘The Gnome’ and ‘Babi Yaga’, both of which could sound more threatening, and Shui’s shaping of the outer sections of ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’ sounds curiously sluggish. On the other hand, other movements come off really well, in particular the refined textures of ‘The Old Castle’ and a wonderfully fresh and incisive ‘Market at Limoges’.

But it’s the second half of this disc that surely justifies the epithet ‘Russian spectacular’. I doubt whether you’d hear a more pulsating and brilliantly executed performance of the Lyapunov orchestration of Balakirev’s Islamey than this version. It’s such a tour de force that my immediate reaction was to press the repeat button so as to hear the track once again. Following this, Shui inspires orchestra and an enthusiastic chorus to bring an irresistible rhythmic verve and suitably high-voltage excitement to Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. Special praise must also be given to BIS’s recording engineers who have captured this programme in extremely vivid sound.

Erik Levi