RIMSKY-KORSAKOV:  Scheherazade.  Russian Easter Overture
London Philharmonic Orch/José Serebrier, cond.
Reference Recordings RR 89 (F) (DDD)  TT:  59:26

MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde
Michelle DeYoung, contralto; Jon Villars, tenor
Minnesota Orchestra/Eiji Oue, cond.
Reference Recordings RR 88 (F) (DDD)  TT:  66:37

An odd juxtaposition of reviews coupled solely because they were issued by the same company, Reference Recordings.  Is there need for another recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's warhorse Scheherazade? I authored a "basic library" on Scheherazade that appeared in the March 1993 issue of Stereophile comparing almost forty recordings coming to the final recommendation if you must have a digital recording get either Neemi Järvi or Sir Charles Mackerras, with a special nod to Leopold Stokowski's pioneering 1927 Victor Philadelphia recording and his 1964 London/Decca version with the London Symphony. In the non-digital category there are a number of superb interpretations, particularly Sir Thomas Beecham, Fritz Reiner and Yevgeny Svetlanov. The latest Schwann/Opus lists less than 40 recordings; fascinating to note that some of the finest recordings available seven years ago are no longer in the catalog, in particular those by the Vladimirs  Ashkenazy and Fedoseyev, and Kiril Kondrashin. 

Yes, there is justification for a new recording of Scheherazade if it has something special to offer.  In this case it is justified by the quality of recorded sound, which is extraordinary.  The recording was made in  March 1999 in "Watford Colosseum" in England (is this Watford Town Hall used in so many recordings?).  Ref/Rec's engineer Keith O. Johnson has provided sound that is resplendent, with rich orchestral textures, silky, airy strings and brilliant brass.  There is an element of presence  not often found in contemporary digital recordings.  The performance is solid and secure rather than exciting and voluptuous.  Serebrier, who worked so much with Stokowski over the years, seems determined to "de-Stoki" this music.  In his rather elaborate notes for the CD, Serebrier discusses various additions/changes of other conductors, and describes how he went back to the original.  I happen to like Stokowski's amendations. I also find particularly effective Yuri Temirkanov's New York recording in which he adds extra percussion to the climax of the finale.  After this, all other "shipwrecks" seem quite tame indeed.  Serebrier mentions that the London Philharmonic brass practiced on other occasions for the Scheherazade recording, but the fact remains that the eighteen bars of repeated trumpet notes, beginning on page 231 of the Kalmus miniature score, can barely be heard either because of the playing or the engineering. The CD is filled out with a splendid performance of Russian Easter Overture here for some reason identified on the back of  the booklet as "The Great Russian Easter," although it is correctly named elsewhere. My favorite Scheherezades remain Svetlanov on Melodiya and the Stokowskis mentioned above.

The other Ref/Rec issue is Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde recorded in February 1999 in Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis.   This towering masterpiece has received many superlative recordings.  Among the best are those by Otto Klemperer, Jascha Horenstein, Eugen Jochum, Eduard van Beinum, Bernard Haitink, Carl Schuricht and Bruno Walter.  Walter made the pioneering recording of this music, a live concert performance May 24, 1936 and for years his 1952 recording with Kathleen Ferrier, Julius Patzak and the Vienna Philharmonic was considered near-definitive. Several concert performances with this conductor are in circulation; the finest is the New York Philharmonic, Kathleen Ferrier and Set Svanholm broadcast of January 18, 1948, included in the NYP's Mahler set.  The Minneapolis performance doesn't begin to approach the power of these recordings.   Oue's Mahler is cautious and ponderous - I know of no other performance as long as this (66:37).  Bruno Walter's 1948 broadcast takes 58:05 and does not sound in any way rushed. Soloists on the new recording are unexceptional.  DeYoung has more than a touch of tremolo with insufficient projection in her lower register.  That Villars can negotiate the demanding tenor songs is a plus, but he sounds somewhat stressed.  Neither of the singers is helped by the sonic picture.  While Ref/Rec recordings in sites outside Minneapolis are usually sonic blockbusters, those made in Minnesota  have a "floating" sound, clear but distant, with instruments lacking edge and presence. Not a contender in the Mahler discography.