Recording of November 1983: Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

1183rotm.250.jpgRimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner conducting.
RCA ".5 Series" ARP1-W27 (LP).

In case you didn't already know, ".5" is RCA's name for their half-speed-–mastered line of audiophile LPs, whose releases to date have included many recordings, as well as some real gems, from their archive of older stereo recordings.

Their choice of old recordings is interesting to say the least, as it shows a side of RCA's classical division that we thought had atrophied and blown away many years ago: musical judgment. Instead of going for their most sonically spectacular tapes from yesteryear, the choices here were clearly made on the basis of musical performance first, with sound as a secondary consideration. The results, to date, have been some of the most collectible symphonic recordings ever released by any domestic record company. In fact, the list of old recordings now available on .5 reads like Memorable Performances hall of fame: Pierre Monteux conducting Franck's D-minor symphony, Ibert's Escales with the BSO and Charles Munch, the incredible Van Cliburn performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto 1, and many of Fritz Reiner's releases with the Chicago Symphony.

My respect for Reiner as an interpreter of dramatic music has grown through the years, as musical fashion has come to favor the cool, detached, intellectual approaches of Seiji Ozawa and Herbert von Karajan. Indeed, I have not heard a recent recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's best-known work that I would ever care to hear again. Hearing this Reiner performance again has made me realize why I felt I was becoming jaded with the music: no one plays it properly any more.

I do not think it would be any exaggeration to call this a stupefying performance! It is played here for everything it was supposed to be: high drama, with all the stops out. The only thing sorely missing is the thunderous applause and "Bravos" that a performance like this would bring from any audience.

And the recording is perhaps the greatest and most pleasant surprise of all. It is simply unbelievable! I don't know what magic producer John Pfeiffer visited upon the original tapes—I'm looking into that end of it now—and I don't have the original stereo release (disc or two-track tape) for comparison, but I had no idea RCA had this kind of sound on any of its master tapes. This sounds like a live orchestra—heard from rather close-up, and with the sometimes-vague instrumental positioning I hear at live concerts. The massed violins are gorgeous, brasses are awesome, solos come from the body of the orchestra instead of from a spot 5' from your nose, and the cellos and double basses almost rattle your viscera! And I will probably reveal my plebian tastes by saying that, for all the unctuousness and power of a typical Telarc symphonic release, I would choose this CSO sound any day in a week of wet Wednesdays.

This is an absolute must have, for anyone who doesn't actively hate any taint of emotion in music. Run, don't walk, to your nearest store and buy this LP before, God forbid, it gets the black diamond treatment. It is a collector's item par excellence!—J. Gordon Holt

volvic's picture

But did he not hear the Kondrashin and Dutoit versions which were released during that same period? Those are quite good as well.

John Atkinson's picture
volvic wrote:
But did he not hear the Kondrashin and Dutoit versions which were released during that same period?

We have no way of finding out. But I still like the 1957 Beecham/RPO best! I have this on LP; a CD was briefly available but now only appears to be available as an MP3:

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

volvic's picture

You're going to make me pull it out and compare tonight, remember still preferring the Kondrashin. All admirable of course by great conductors who are sorely missed.

BTW the EMI CD from 80's is available from sellers on amazon if interested.

diehelix's picture

Agree on every point of the review. However, Fritz Reiner passed away in 1963. The recording is probably the one from 1960, and, yes, it's great.
If you like it, give the Living Stereo/Sony 60 CD box a chance which includes this one. Mostly fantastic recordings from that time (Reiner, Munch, Heifetz, Rubinstein etc, DSD remastered by Soundmirror). Also superb booklet... it's got to be one of the best values out there (around 100$ in Europe). Keeps me listening for days