As a keen fan of the Shahrazad (Sheherazade) suite I was keen to acquaint myself with Rimsky-Korsakov's other Oriental fairy-tale suite, Antar. Unlike Shahrazad, there are comparatively fewer recordings of Antar, and even fewer in the composer's preferred definitive version. The issue is further complicated by the different versions of the score and by mislabellings on the part of different publishers. Rimsky originally brought out the score as his Second Symphony in 1868 and revised it in 1875 and again more thoroughly to its supposed definitive form in 1897. However his publishers brought out a third edition in 1903 but mislabelled it as the 1897 version. Many other editions have also reprinted the 1903 edition and also mislabelled it as the 1897 version. Rimsky's stingy publishers were unwilling to print a new set of plates and so they only incorporated some of the changes into their existing plates of the 1875 edition. This mislabelled version has since been regarded as a "standard" text for Antar even though it is an inferior edition of the score that Rimsky did not supervise or sanction. This situation is similar to how the Rimsky-Korsakov version of Night on the Bare (Bald) Mountain is viewed as standard even though the original Mussorgsky score is readily available. Only in 1913 did Rimsky-Korsakov's son in law bring out the real 1897 version of Antar. As a result 80 percent of the currently available Antar recordings use the 1903 edition and the sleeves mislabel the edition as the 1897 version. This is an unfortunate oversight for classical music fans who are tricked into getting recordings with the compromised edition.
I know that people will ask me how I can tell the differences between the various versions of Antar. I can tell the 1897 version from the 1903 compromise version because Rimsky casts the second movement in D minor rather than in C sharp minor and assigns the fourth movement Arab melody to the oboe rather than to the cor anglais.
The BIS recording of Kees Bakels and the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and the various Svetlanov recordings are the only notable stereo recordings I know of that use the real 1897 edition. Svetlanov did two version of Antar with the USSR Academic Orchestra and also did the work for Hyperion with the Philharmonia Orchestra. To my ears, this strikes me as the best available version of Antar in its real 1897 version out of the few recordings that have been made of this version. I tend to prefer this interpretation to the Melodiya version and I also like the warmer, clearer and detailed sonics of the Hyperion disc. They may not be audiophile quality but it sounds very good.
The Hyperion Antar glistens and feels warm, sumptuous and atmospheric. Svetlanov paces the music very well and the Philharmonia turns in a shimmering and atmospheric reading of the score, responding to its various moods. Admittedly one might like a little more oomph and punchiness in the second movement about the Joy of Revenge. However the brass blazes here and sounds martial in the march for the Joy of Power. I like Svetlanov's treatment of the march here. His adopted tempo is brisker than that of his Melodiya recording. It is steady and stately and does not rush like in the BIS Bakels disc. It is in the enchanted scenes and the less intense scenes where the performance really shines. The Shahrazad-like wind arabesques for Gul Nazar are appropriately sinuous and the palace scenes sparkle like gossamer. The first-movement scene in Gul Nazar's palace spins itself out very well and Svetlanov really makes the music glisten. And Svetlanov remembers to make the secondary theme in the third movement and the fourth movement finale ravishing enough. One can really feel the love that Antar and Gul Nazar share in the last embrace before he dies in her arms.
Even with a superb rendition of the Russian Easter Festival Overture as its fill-up I know that a 50-minute disc like this does not represent good value for money in this day and age. However as far as recordings of the real 1897 Antar is concerned this is the best out of a narrow choice. Fortunately it is in Hyperion's budget-priced label, and so it might make a worthy complement to anyone's existing recordings of Shahrazad.