Thursday, 9 August 2012

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, August 2012)

Capriccio Espagnol / Overtures
Seattle Symphony / GERARD SCHWARZ
Naxos 8.572788 / ****1/2

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), the creator of Scheherazade, was a naval officer who later became a venerated professor of composition at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Largely self-taught and drawing inspiration from folk music of Russian and neighbouring Central Asian peoples, he became the longest-lived and most successful of the “Mighty Handful” clique of composers. His orchestral works are known for their extraordinary colour and imaginative use of instrumental resources. In his Capriccio Espagnol (Spanish Caprice), authenticity however takes a distant second place to a Russian’s stylised impression of sunny Spain and its dances. Its sultry serenade and hot-blooded fandango however leave an indelible impression.

His Russian Easter Overture quotes from Orthodox liturgical themes and is a stand-alone showpiece of grandeur, pomp and pageantry. If the Overture On Russian Themes sounds familiar, that is because it uses the iconic Slava theme that appears in Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov and other melodies to be found in Borodin’s Second Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Rimsky-Korsakov’s little march Dubinushka (Little Oak Stick) was adapted from a student’s song used in anti-Tsarist rallies. The much-recorded Seattle Symphony under long-time music director Gerard Schwarz put their stamp on further overtures to three operas, completing this enjoyable musical showcase of Slavic nationalism.  


SCHUBERT Operatic Overtures
Haydn Sinfonietta Wien / Manfred Huss
BIS 1862 / ****

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) may have been the world’s greatest songwriter but how many people know of his operas? He never got to hear most of these within his short lifetime, which makes one wonder why he composed operas in the first place. As a composer, Schubert lived in the shadow of Beethoven, while opera in Vienna was dominated by Rossini and Weber. Therein provides a clue to the ten overtures on this disc.

Other than Der Teufel Als Hydraulicus and Die Zwillingsbruder which last all but 3 minutes, all of the overtures are longer than Mozart’s overtures and contain a similar dramatic intensity as Beethoven’s overtures, and implicit humour of Weber’s overtures. Des Teufels Lustschloss, composed at the age of just 17, demonstrates a penchant for the sturm und drang (storm and stress) that is stirring.

As he matured into his 20s, one begins to discern a more individual voice. The opening of Alfonso Und Estrella, while casting a backward glance at Don Giovanni, looks forward to Verdi and even Bruckner. The string tremolos and brass chorale of Fierabras (1823) could have come from the pen of Wagner. These overtures were performed on period instruments, which account for an anaemic and strident quality to the sound. Putting aside issues of authenticity, it would have been nice to experience these on modern instruments.  

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