Friday, May 23, 2008

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

If you're just starting to learn about classical music and you're interested in acquiring your first few recordings, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade would be a great start to your collection. It's one of the richest, most vibrant symphonic works out there, and is enjoyable and accessible to even the most novice classical music listener.

First, let's start with the backstory:

"The Sultan Shakhriar, persuaded by the falseness and faithlessness of all women, had sworn to put to death each of his wives after the first night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by arousing his interest in tales which she told him during a thousand and one nights. Driven by curiosity, the sultan put off his wife's execution from day to day and at last gave up his bloody plan altogether. Scheherazade told many marvelous tales to the Sultan. For her stories, she borrowed from poets their verses, from folk songs their words, and she strung together fairy tales and adventures."
Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Solo Violin: Michel Schwalbe
(also includes Borodin's Polowetzer Tänze)
Deutsche Grammophon, 1967

I guarantee you will love this work. The storyline is exotic, the musical themes are memorable and compelling. And it's particularly amazing how Rimsky-Korsakov achieves such a rich, lush sound despite the fact that this work is scored for a normally sized orchestra.

In contrast, Gustav Mahler--roughly a contemporary of Rimsky-Korsakov and another composer known for a rich and lush sound--generally scored his symphonies for much larger-than-typical orchestra, often including six or eight trumpets rather than the typical two, and a woodwind section double the size of what a typical symphony orchestra might carry. (A side note: one of the contributing reasons many professional musicians love Mahler is the opportunity his symphonies provide for extra work...).

So of course Mahler can achieve an exceptionally rich and deep sound--he's basically cheating by stacking the deck! But Rimsky-Korsakov uses a "normal" orchestra, and yet somehow achieves a sound as layered and arresting as the highest high points of any Mahler symphony.

See below for links to excellent recordings of Scheherazade in both MP3 and CD formats. Enjoy! We'll return to Rimsky-Korsakov again shortly, when we'll listen to his symphonic works.

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