'All credit to orchestra and conductor for the quality of playing in general, and to...
Matthew Shorter 2003
Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherezade is loosely based on the Persian fairy tales of A Thousand and One Nights, famously related by the Sultana Sheherazade to her despotic Sultan husband in a two-and-a-half year series of cliffhangers designed to postpone the ever-present threat of execution.
Like all good bedtime stories, it thrives on repetition. The opening musical phrase representing alternately the Sultan and the stormy sea occurs 38 times (complete or truncated) in the first movement alone, before appearing in altered forms later in the work. The repetition is no accident - it's ingenious both as a vehicle for Rimsky's fabulous inventiveness in harmony and orchestration, and as a depiction of the simultaneous sameness and unpredictability of the sea, in a movement subtitled The Sea and Sinbad's Ship. But Valery Gergiev's slow and somewhat rigid tempos tend to emphasise the movement's monotony at the expense of its colour - a rather wooden ship on a wooden sea.
There's a similar knowingness to the storytelling in the second movement, where slow tempos, and a mannered approach in the wind solos which punctuate the movement, underline the episodic nature of the music in thick felt-tip pen. The solo violin part throughout the work also feels more studied than deeply felt, as do the romantic climaxes in the love-scene third movement.
All credit, however, to orchestra and conductor for the quality of playing in general, and to the producers for the balance, both in the tuttis, and in bringing out Rimsky's crystalline solo textures, such as the passages for solo cello, horn and woodwinds in the first movement. And if tempos are slow in the first three movements, Gergiev makes up for lost time in the fiery, bristling fourth, which becomes a tour-de-force for an orchestra clearly at the height of its powers (featuring some breathtaking display from trumpet and piccolo in particular).
Two contemporary works complete the disc, Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia and Balakirev's Islamey. If the latter feels like an overgrown encore to a Warner Brothers cartoon, the former turns out to be the perfect vehicle for Gergiev's gifts. Borodin's musical picture evokes a relationship of sweetness and light between the Russian conquerors and Caucasian conquered - probably as unlikely then as now, through folk-inspired music which is gentle and measured throughout, and which Gergiev handles with real sensitivity.
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