Toward the late 19th century, Russia came into its own in a big way as artistic Romanticism took hold in that country. One of the greatest composers to emerge from that period, slightly before Tchaikovsky, was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
I haven’t heard too much of Rimsky-Korsakov’s work, but I’ve yet to hear a piece of his that isn’t somehow deeply scintillating and evocative. The Russian gift for lyrical melody and brooding atmosphere is almost a stereotype, but Rimsky-Korsakov really was a magnificent melodist, but even more, he was one of the most brilliant orchestrators ever. He had a way of using the instruments of the standard orchestra in new and exciting ways to achieve tonal effects and colors that are as brilliant and fresh today as ever. This is particularly evident in this, my favorite work of his, and one of my favorite works of all time: the symphonic suite Scheherazade.
The idea of ‘program music’ has always been mildly problematic for composers. Can purely orchestral music really tell a story? Or can it only suggest mood and color? I tend to think the latter, but the visual associations in this music are very hard to forget once you read the titles of the movements. In any event, Scheherazade is an utterly spectacular musical entertainment, big and bold and vivid and melodic and thrilling and passionate and exotic. I used to pore over the score to Scheherazade, noting with amazement the things Rimsky-Korsakov did with just the standard symphony orchestra.
This particular performance, by the way, may sound slightly odd to modern ears, because the orchestra performs on period instruments, using period performance standards (such as a mellower trumpet sound and much less vibrato in the strings). I often find period-instrument performances fascinating and compelling if the performance carries a passion to match. This one nails the passion of Scheherazade fairly well.
Only eight letters left. What to do with ‘S’? We’ll see on Monday!
One of my favorite pieces of music.