November 09, 2023


Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade; Liadov: The Enchanted Lake. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Dmitri Kitajenko. SWR Classic. $18.99.

Kodály: Háry János Suite; Summer Evening; Symphony in C. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $13.99.

     Even within their avowed aim of producing music with a strong connection to their country, the Russian nationalist composers of the late 19th and early 20th century sometimes found themselves reaching into distant realms to achieve their purpose. The results could be fascinating works, hybrids of a sort, and nowhere more so than in Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite based on the tales of the Arabian nights. Sumptuously orchestrated and structurally innovative, with recurrent themes that are not leitmotifs in the Wagnerian sense but that nevertheless knit together the entire work, Scheherazade remains justly popular for its blend of beauty and a kind of mild Orientalism. Rimsky-Korsakov had a tremendous ability to take somewhat unformed or ill-formed works of his contemporaries, notably Borodin and Mussorgsky, and make the music playable and palatable to audiences – while still retaining its composers’ unique features. Nowadays there are arguments about whether this was a good thing – some prefer the rather ragged but undeniably distinctive original version of Night on Bald Mountain to Rimsky-Korsakov’s smoother, better-known one, for example – but there is no doubt that within his own works, Rimsky-Korsakov knew just how to produce music of considerable power with unique elements that made it highly attractive within the overall Russian-nationalist approach. Dmitri Kitajenko’s Scheherazade reading with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR, which dates to 2013, is a highly attractive and very well-played one, probing the connective tissue among the four movements of the suite, emphasizing the recurrent themes that tie the story together, and featuring an especially poignant handling of the “Scheherazade” theme on solo violin (Natalie Chee). This SWR Classic release couples the broadly conceived Rimsky-Korsakov work with one of the miniatures by Liadov, who never completed any large-scale musical projects. The Enchanted Lake features exoticism of its own kind, being labeled “a fairy tale scene” and featuring near-perfect orchestral stasis that nevertheless produces a feeling of Impressionistic portrayal of a magical place. Written more than two decades after Scheherazade (1909 vs. 1888), Liadov’s work handles the orchestra with a different sort of skill and reaches deftly, but not too strongly, into new harmonic and expressive realms. Here too, Kitajenko lets the music unfold naturally, and the orchestra’s excellent and idiomatic playing allows the essential stillness of Liadov’s scene to come through eloquently – along with its small hints that there is something magical just out of sight, waiting to be perceived by those with eyes to see and ears to hear it.

     Matters are altogether more gruff, the magic more down-to-earth and distinctly Hungarian, in Kodály’s Háry János Suite, which gets a finely honed performance from JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on a new Naxos CD. This justly popular suite (1926-1927) draws on a fairy tale with its own strongly Hungarian elements, a story in which an impoverished and rather tipsy self-proclaimed hero remembers his deeds of derring-do with perhaps a touch more embellishment than is strictly justifiable. Kodály’s opera spins the old soldier’s story out at much greater length, but the suite neatly encapsulates it without a word being said or sung – although the opening “orchestral sneeze,” an indicator that listeners should take the whole thing with several grains of salt, speaks clearly enough. The suite’s intermingling of exotic-sounding elements, such as the second-movement Viennese Musical Clock and the recurrent cimbalom (played here by Chester Englander), gives it a unique sound that the Buffalo players by and large handle very well, although at times – as in the lyricism of the third-movement Song – a somewhat greater warmth of strings would be welcome. Falletta certainly captures the humor of the fourth-movement Battle and Defeat of Napoleon, although here some slightly more-rounded brass would have been nice. As a whole, the suite comes across with considerable bounce and humor here, just as it should. Also on the disc is the much-less-known Summer Evening (1906, revised 1929-1930), which in its evocation of warmth and pleasantness is on the same plane as Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake, created at the same time as Kodály’s original version of this effective tone poem. Kodály never focused on composition to the same extent as Bartók, spending far more of his time gathering their country’s folk music than creating his own. This explains not only the time period before the revision of Summer Evening but also the very extended gestation of Kodály’s only symphony, which gradually came together between the late 1930s and 1961. It is a three-movement work of modest dimensions (27 minutes in this performance), with an orchestral style characterized by clarity and mostly straightforward (if sometimes piquant) harmonies – well-made, nicely balanced among the orchestra’s sections, appropriately energetic, but ultimately on the cool side. It is easier to admire the symphony and appreciate it intellectually than to respond to it emotionally; indeed, emotional connection seems not to be its point, although the somewhat Oriental flavor within the central Andante moderato contrasts interestingly with Rimsky-Korsakov’s use of similar elements more than 70 years earlier. Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic give the Kodály work its due, and it certainly works as pure rather than stage-focused or Impressionistic music; but the Háry János Suite and Summer Evening are really the highlights of this very well-played CD.

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