The January 2015 edition of Looking Back to Bookspan’s “101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers” features Rimsky-Korsakov’s work based on Scheherazade’s stories from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, and two compositions by Saint-Saens, the light-hearted Carnival of the Animals and his majestic Symphony Number Three, known as the “Organ” Symphony.
The single most important contribution of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov to the evolution of music is his use of the various orchestral instruments to create variety and color, a technique known as “orchestration.” Rimsky-Korsakov was recognized in his day as a master of orchestration, a reputation that extends to our time. A passionate advocate of academic training, he passed his knowledge and technique on to the next generation of composers during his years as a music conservatory professor. Several of Rimsky-Korsakov’s works demonstrate his finesse with instrumentation and an ability to evoke exoticism, including his famous composition called “Scheherazade.”
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is united by a musical theme played by a solo violin, representing the voice of the legendary Scheherazade telling the compelling stories that keep her Persian king entertained for one thousand and one nights. The four sections of the music correspond to four of the tales: (I) The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship, (II) The Story of the Kalendar Prince, (III) The Young Prince and the Young Princess, and (IV) The Festival at Bagdad and The Wreck of Sinbad’s Ship.
Martin Bookspan accurately observes that “Scheherazade is a virtuoso score which demands of its performers the ultimate in technical polish along with an absorption in the persuasive exoticism of the music.” Bookspan’s preferred interpretation of Scheherazade is the recording made by Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic in the 1950’s. Even though it is currently only available as a downloadable MP3 file the performance has been rated so highly through the years you may be able to obtain a good used copy of the CD. Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Theater Orchestra recorded Scheherazade live but without an audience in 2002 for the Philips label. It has received sterling reviews and will make an excellent modern choice.
The Carnival of the Animals is another set of musical stories that the composer, Camille Saint-Saëns, never intended to be widely told, and insisted it never be published during his lifetime. Saint-Saëns was concerned that the piece was so much fun it would detract from his stature as a creator of “serious” music. He also borrowed several themes by other composers, casting the melodies in satirical settings that were not exactly flattering. Due to a cheerful nature and vivid use of the instruments of the orchestra, the Carnival of the Animals has become a work often included on concert programs for children, and it is frequently pared on recordings with other “kid-friendly” classical music. Bookspan’s recommendations seem to be out of print, though he does make mention of a version without narration from conductor Efrem Kurtz. You can obtain through ArkivMusic a reissue of a more recent recording from Kurtz, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the inimitable Jonathan Winters providing the narration written by Ogden Nash. It is as quirky as you would expect from Jonathan Winters, and the recording is paired with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf with Winters again giving a totally over-the-top narration. The 1994 recording from conductor Yuli Turovsky and I Musici de Montreal is without narration and provides plenty of sparkle and panache.
It would be difficult to say who was greater as a child prodigy, Wolfgang Mozart or Camille Saint-Saëns. The case can be made that Saint-Saëns would come out as the winner. He began performing at five, and his first ten gave his first public recital, offering as an encore to play from memory any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. Not only was he a virtuoso at the piano, it was said he had no equal in his day as an organist. It thus seems quite natural that his last symphonic features both the piano and the organ. Rippling piano passages in the scherzo (a signature effect in Saint-Saëns’ music) and a stupendous finale with that glorious organ give his Symphony Number Three a sound like no other.
Martin Bookspan calls the 1959 recording of the Organ Symphony by Saint-Saëns made by conductor Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra “a triumph,” and “one of the most memorable of Munch’s achievements during his thirteen Boston years.” It continues to be considered by critics today to be one of, if not the best recording of the work. Though certainly not the most recent release, I will mention that a 1976 performance from conductor Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in my personal collection is a worthy “modern” choice. However, it is only available from ArkivMusic as a reissue, and while it is a fine recording it simply does not reach the same lofty heights as the remarkable reading by Munch and the BSO.