With over 124 versions currently on the books, many performed by big-ticket orchestras and led by esteemed conductors of the present and past, is there any possible excuse for a new recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's well-trodden warhorse of warhorses, Scheherazade? What can unsung conductor Goetzel and his Istanbul Philharmonic bring to the table that isn't there already? Well, the short answer is a darbuka, a def, a bendir, a kudum, and a host of non-Western percussion instruments. As you might already have guessed, this isn't quite your typical Scheherazade; for Goetzel has freely substituted traditional Oriental instruments for the Western ones we're used to hearing. A qanun rather than a harp now accompanies the solo violin's entrance. Between the first and second movements, and also between the third and fourth movements, you'll hear an oud and a qanun playing traditional Eastern melodies. There is, of course, a reason for these unusual choices. Goetzel believes that he's created a musical language closer to the original sound the composer had in mind before he tailored his orchestration for Western orchestras and audiences. Though this seems to me a dubious proposition, I'm willing to go along with it. For one thing, it's Scheherazade we're talking about here. It's not as if Goetzel had snuck a wind machine into the third movement of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony. Also, to these ears, the difference between the sound of this version and others doesn't seem especially profound. Then again I couldn't tell a darbuka from a kumquat.
So let's move on to more important matters: the
performance and the sound. Make no mistake about it: Goetzel's approach is
lush and hot-blooded, fully exploiting the narrative for sensual delights and
excitement. He's closer in spirit to the extremity of Bernstein and Svetlanov
than the objectivity of Haitink and Reiner. The BIPO was formed to promote
Western repertory to Turkish audiences, and it plays the music with a
rough-and-ready intensity that exactly complements Goetzel's interpretation.
The sound is widescreen, larger-than-life, and in no way realistic, but I
enjoyed it nonetheless. Unlike Stokowski's grotesque Phase Four production,
one of his last recordings, Goetzel and his engineers push the limits but manage
to stay in bounds. My only complaint concerns the unimaginative fillers. I would
rather have listened to something else by Rimsky-Korsakov (the Russian
Easter Overture or the Suite from Le
Coq D'Or, for example) than the painfully awkward orchestral
version of Islamey or the dull
excerpts from the Caucasian Sketches.
You can hardly blame Goetzel for wanting to include the work of a Turkish
composer, but I couldn't make much of Ulvi Cemal Erkin's Dance
Rhapsody. Maybe you'll have better luck.
As much as I enjoyed Goetzel's Scheherazade, it's not quite the equal of my three favorite versions: Igor Markevitch with the London Symphony Orchestra (an old Phillips, if you can find it), Valery Gergiev with the Kirov, and Kyrill Kondrashin with the Concertgebouw. There are also many classic performances that take precedence over this one. Among the best: Reiner, Beecham, Bernstein, Silvestri, and Haitink. Still, if you're looking for something different, you might really enjoy this new release.