A beguiling Scheherazade from Istanbul

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

Sascha Goetzel/ Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra (Onyx)

Peter Oundjian/ Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Chandos)

Full of Eastern promise, Scheherazade weaves her sinuous way into my affections once again, with new recordings from Istanbul and Toronto. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Arabian Nights-inspired orchestral warhorse has some terrific performances on disc. Here, one release is imaginatively programmed, while the other is presented alone; one disappoints, while the other skirts with ecstatic rapture.

rimsky-scheherazade-oundjian-chandosLet’s brush aside the disappointment first. Peter Oundjian’s Toronto Symphony recording for Chandos is an extremely proficient account, one you’d be more than happy to encounter in the concert hall; indeed, it was recorded in concert in Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall. The booklet has an evocative photo of Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Mosque at night adorning the cover, but that’s as exotic as it gets.

Chandos has engineered a big, bold sound which is matched by weighty playing in “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship”, but it’s all rather effortless, like an ocean liner cutting through the waves. Jonathan Crow glides through Scheherazade’s violin solos, with little imaginative shaping or poetry. The Toronto winds are serviceable and the third movement march is perky and light on its feet. Oundjian builds up a powerful storm before the work’s serene conclusion. In short, a perfectly secure account, but a touch too bland in what is a fiercely competitive market, especially with a stingy lack of any coupling.

It’s unfortunate timing that the Chandos release comes hot on the heels of a terrific recording from the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic under its charismatic conductor Sascha Goetzel. rimsky-scheherazade-borusan-onyxThis youthful orchestra, which impressed in a wonderful Proms debut in July, invests far more imagination in its performance. To begin with, the quality of the playing of each department is far superior. In the work’s introduction, the Borusan brass has more bite for the Sultan Shahryar’s stern oath that each of his wives will be put to death after the first night of marriage. Woodwind playing is full of flexibility; Goetzel allows his bassoonist Cavit Karakoç complete metrical freedom at the start of “The Kalandar Prince” and his playing is a joy; this is real storytelling. The great clarinet solo (fig. F) in the same movement finds Ferhat Göksel phrasing and shading dynamics sensitively. There is feminine sweetness to the strings as they caress the great melody which opens “The Young Prince and Young Princess”, bringing a warm, yearning quality to their playing.

Goetzel paces the work extremely convincingly. He shapes a lovely ebb and flow to “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship”, the climax of “The Kalandar Prince” is steady in tempo, but whips up excitement through the energetic string playing. The storm and shipwreck of the finale is far more exciting than in Toronto; high woodwinds shriek and percussion is more vivid – the Bosphorus evidently has choppier waters.

The Borusan recording also benefits from local colour, the booklet noting that Istanbul is a melting pot between East and West. Pelin Alkaci Akin’s gorgeously-shaped violin solos as Scheherazade are accompanied not by the usual harp, but by a qanun – an instrument looking much like a zither, played by plucking strings with tortoise-shell picks or using fingernails (the booklet helpfully offers a photograph). The effect makes Scheherazade’s solos sound even more fragrantly perfumed. Goetzel also inserts brief improvised introductions to the second and fourth movements, one for an oud (an Arabic cousin of the lute), the other for qanun. They’re both short, but I’d have welcomed something more substantial, as well as an interlude before the third movement too. The percussion department is subtly bolstered by the use of darbuka, bendir and kudüm, plus oriental triangle and cymbals.

In a session report from Istanbul for BBC Radio 3’s CD Review, listeners heard a ‘take’ of the opening to “The Kalandar Prince” where the bassoon solo was replaced by a Ney flute – an arresting idea, but one which sadly didn’t make it into the disc itself, even as an teaser on an extra track. However, the second of Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Caucasian Sketches – “In the Village” – does employ the Ney, substituting the cor anglais solo. It’s a haunting sound. Percussion glitters in the familiar “Procession of the Sardar”. Balakirev’s oriental fantasy Islamey is given a persuasive performance. Turkey itself is represented in the programme via Ulvi Cemal Erkin’s colourful Köçekçe, a rhapsody alluding to traditional Turkish tunes and rhythms which the Borusan dispatches with considerable élan.

The exuberance of Borusan approach recalls some of the excitement of Loris Tjeknavorian’s recordings with the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra for ASV, both of Scheherazade and the Caucasian Sketches. The Armenian strings were much thinner-toned, but the vivid percussion and general chutzpah produce the same excitement here. For daring, exotic colour, this is the most beguiling Scheherazade to have entertained me for some time.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade; Balakirev: Islamey; Ippolitov-Ivanov: Caucasian Sketches Suite No.1 (In a Village; Procession of the Sardar); Erkin: Köçekçe – Sascha Goetzel/ Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra (Onyx 4124)
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade – Peter Oundjian/ Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Chandos CHSA 5145)
Comparisons: Scheherazade:
Loris Tjeknavorian/ Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra (ASV) CD DCA771 (1991)
Caucasian Sketches:
Loris Tjeknavorian/ Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra (ASV) CD DCA773 (1991)

This review originally appeared in IRR.

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