"The centuries go by, and we are still hearing the voice of Scheherazade." Jorge Luis Borges talks about how The Arabian Nights have become part of the DNA of Western culture. "It is part of our memory," he says. In Rimsky-Korsakov's retelling of these ageless themes, the powerfully cogent arguments of 19th century music - thematic exposition, development & recapitulation, scherzo, reverie, transfiguration - become the stories that each time stave off execution. The titles supplied by the composer for each section - The Sea and Sinbad's Ship, Festival at Baghdad, and the rest - aren't important in themselves. Rimsky-Korsakov tells Scheherazade's life-or-death story by placing her voice - a beautiful theme for solo violin - in the middle of the action, and showing her success through the final taming of the savage and barbaric themes with a quiet but satisfyingly hopeful ending.
This orchestral showpiece was especially popular in the 1950s and 60s. At 40-45 minutes it just fit on two LP sides. Celebrated versions were released with the great orchestras of the day conducted by Fritz Reiner Scheherazade / Song of the Nightingale, Leopold Stokowski Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade / Leopold Stokowski Conducting The London Symphony Orchestra [London Phase 4 Stereo] [VINYL LP] and others. These tended to be full-blown, exotic, colourful and romantic interpretations. By the CD era, more analytic, cooler readings focussed on the orchestral virtuosity and rhythmic variety. Kirill Kondrashin & the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade and Charles Dutoit with the Montreal Symphony Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Op. 35; Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34 are stand-outs. The extra room on CDs almost always brought additional pieces - often the Russian Easter Orchestra or the Capriccio Espagnole, or both.
This brand-new Chandos disc shows off a revitalized Toronto Symphony Orchestra under the impressive leadership of Peter Oundjian, and the result is everything one could hope for. Instrumental playing is at the highest level - including the solo violin played, I presume, by concertmaster Jonathan Crow - and the story-telling is all under Oundjian's expansive, not-too-fussy control. The Chandos engineers provide outstanding multi-channel surround sound from the Roy Thompson Hall sessions in June 2013, and it sounds great in the standard stereo format. Forty-five minutes is short measure for a CD or album-length download, but perhaps standing alone best shows off the sparkle of this orchestral jewel.