Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherezade, Op. 35 (1888)

Scheherezade. The version I first purchased, on 5 April 1966, in Ottawa (Courtesy: arhciphon.de

Scheherezade. The version I first purchased, on 5 April 1966, in Ottawa (Courtesy: arhciphon.de)

The Russian orientalism of this finely orchestrated suite, based on A Thousand and One Nights, has remained with me, despite all its too repetitive thematic material, for well over fifty years. Rimsky-Korsakov was prone to over-indulgence in his musical material, often stretching it to the point of the unendurable, for instance, and despite the beauty of the material, in Antar, his second symphony; so that what one is left with is a deterioration into melodic monotony.  In Scheherezade this is somewhat disguised by the devices of melisma and of rhythmic variation, especially in the opening movement, which is the best partly because the devices for its thematic prolongation, despite the thematic repetition, are not yet overused, and partly because the solo violin, floating over all, dilutes the marvellous, if eventually cloying, taste of the scoring. But then it, and the weaver of tales it represents, largely disappears from the succeeding three movements. Berlioz does more with the orchestra, and has more musical and dramatic ideas. It takes effort to tire of La Damnation de Faust, but only the late night, with the fatigue of the day and of tomorrow upon it, keeps company with the story-teller, not unwillingly, in the Baghdad that once was.

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