RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Symphonies Nos 1 & 3
Gravesend is an unlikely location for a Russian opus 1, but the Andante tranquillo of Rimsky-Korsakov’s First Symphony was composed there while the 17-year-old was on naval duty. César Cui dubbed it the first truly Russian symphony. Rimsky revised and reorchestrated it in 1884, transposing it from E flat minor to E minor. The composer’s symphonies get short shrift, both in the concert hall and on disc. Only the Second gets the occasional outing, mostly due to its Sheherazade-like oriental flavour. Prolific recording conductor Gerard Schwarz has given us three discs of Rimsky’s orchestral music with the Seattle Symphony. For the First and Third, he now teams up with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Naxos provides a beefy Berlin sound, with weighty strings and imposing brass. With the First Symphony Schwarz misses some of the magic in an earthbound slow movement – whose folksong was suggested by Balakirev – but the Scherzo has a fine swagger to it, building a good head of steam. Schwarz is a bit of a heavy breather on the podium which, once noticed, becomes distracting.
The Third Symphony is alive with melodic ideas, opening in good-natured C major. Clarinet teases and flute and solo violin intertwine sinuously (this is still pre-Sheherazade), although the Berlin RSO could produce more pronounced staccato for the bustling 5/4 Scherzo. The Andante flows along swiftly – both Kees Bakels and Neeme Järvi on rival accounts take far more time – and the symphony ends ebulliently. Schwarz’s accounts don’t quite come up to the level of the recorded competition (Bakels drawing spirited playing from the Malaysian Philharmonic, while Järvi is a master in Russian repertoire) but they should win new friends for these amiable works.