RIMSKY-KORSAKOV:  Scheherazade, Op. 35.  BORODIN: In the Steppes of Central Asia.  BALAKIREV: Islamey.
Kirov Orchestra; Valery Gergiev, cond.
PHILIPS 470 840 (F) (DDD) TT:  62:31

RIMSKY-KORSAKOV:  Cantates profanes - Secular Cantatas:  The Song of Alexis, Man of God.  The Song of Oleg the Wise.  Iz Gomera, Op. 60.  Switezianka, or The Girl in the Lake.
Moscow Choral Chant Academy; Viktor Popov, dir.  Moscow Symphony Orch; Vladimir Ziva, cond.
LE CHANT DU MONDE RUS 288175 (F) (DDD) TT:  5103

Vergiev's Scheherazade is expectedly volatile, individual and brilliantly played by his orchestra.  It surely is among more interesting performances on record although I'm surprised he didn't make more of the "Shipwreck" climax in the final movement—Temirkanov and the New York Philharmonic on RCA/BMG (61173) is the only recording—with the help of added timpani whacks—that really makes this a cataclysmic event. .In the Steppes of Central Asia sounds a bit rushed for optimum effect, although it surely is effective, with its quiet high violins, to follow the quite similar soft ending of ScheherazadeIslamey, in the Lyapunov transcription, is another spectacular performance. However, all this performance quality is negated by the sound. Recorded in the Marinsky Theater in St. Petersburg in November 2001, the CD lists an Executive Producer (Clive Bennett), a Recording Producer (Andrew Cornall), a Balance Engineer (Philip Siney), two Recording Engineers (Vladimir Ryabenko and Sergei Parfenov), a Recording Editor (Ingmar Haas) and states that the recording was "mixed at Classic Sound Limited" and "compiled and mastered by Ian Watson and Jenni Whiteside at Classic Sound Limited on behalf of Emil Berliner Studios."  With all this, it's difficult to tell just who is to blame for the result. It sounds as if the hall was very unresonant and many microphones were very close to different sections of the orchestra. An artificial resonance prevails, there is little low bass, and it seems levels were "adjusted" throughout producing a highly unnatural sound that does not please. Labeling of the CD is odd. What is seen first is, in rather small type, "Philips." In gold print against a white background in very small print on the outer edge of the label, almost impossible to read, are the titles of the three works on the CD. Why make it so difficult to read the contents of the CD?

The other Rimsky-Korsakov issue is a pleasure throughout offering seldom-heard works of the Russian master which have received few if any previous recordings.  These four cantatas are hardly "profane" as the title suggests.  The brief Song of Alexis, Man of God, for chorus and orchestra, dates from1878, the time when the composer revised his opera The Maid of Pskov; he actually uses a pilgrims' chorus from Pskov in this cantata.  The longest work on this CD (17:09) is The Song of Oleg The Wise, for mens' chorus with tenor and bass soloists, to a poem by Pushkin, completed in 1899.  The Girl in the Lake is almost as lengthy (16:25), scored for chorus with soprano and tenor soloists. Written in 1897, it was premiered in St. Petersburg the following year with Glazunov conducting. Iz Gomera resulted from the composer's unfufilled wish to write an opera on Homer's Odyssey to be called Nausicaa; the cantata, for orchestra and womens' voices, was premiered in 1903 with Siloti conducting. Performances surely are authoritative, choral singing is strong and, fortunately, the four female soloists are not typical of the usual Russian wobbly sopranos. Excellent sound, too, and complete texts, in French and English.

R.E.B. (November 2002)