My recorded standards in this Romantic Era perennial?
Well, Sir Thomas Beecham with RPO on EMI in stereo still tops all, to my ears. Part of that success for me is the simply stunning virtuosity and musical magic of Beecham's RPO concertmaster of that era, taking the solo violin part. Few if any have done solo fiddling in this work better than Steven Staryk, originally from Canada. (You want more of Staryk's fiddling? Check out his solo work in Richard Strauss Heldenleben by Beecham and RPO, also stereo on EMI - I think just reissued again.)
Next, a number of others come into view,... or should I say, hearing.
One on the fav shelf is the remastered SACD version on BMG/RCA/now Sony from Reiner/Chicago in a retrospectively recognized gripping golden period of the band's history. Add the Philharmonia London led by Lovro von Matacic reissued on Testament. Add Stokowski, again with RPO and the later concertmaster Eric Gruenberg on BMG, coupled with the most amazing Russian Easter Overture ever taped, where Stokowski leads Chicago in a cherished moment of stellar guest conducting. Add Ricardo Muti leading the revitalized Philadelphia Orchestra with concertmaster Normal Carol. Add L'orchestre du Suisse Romande under their music director Ernst Ansermet with Lorand Fenyves fiddling, now 24-bit remastered on Decca/London legends series. Add the young Seiji Ozawa with Chicago again, Victor Aitay fiddling on EMI. Add the London Philharmonic under Jose Serebrier on Reference Recordings - do you have your HDCD decoder yet? - with Joakim Svenheden fiddling. A DVD-audio disc with Jerzy Semkow leading St. Louis, Max Rabinowitsj soloing. (Coupled with Prokofiev Nevsky cantata going full tilt with mezzo Claudine Carlson and chorus.) Add EMIs disc of London Symphony, John Georgiadis fiddling under Yevgeny Svetlanov. Don't omit, a Naxos bargain, David Nolan fiddling, and Enrique Batiz leading Phlharmonia London. Recall a sensuous and beautiful outing with Montreal under Dutoit with Richard Roberts fiddling. Jaap van Zweden soloing with Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra under Ricardo Chailly, back before van Z became a rising Netherlands star conductor.
This fav shelf comparison list is long, isn't it? Wrap up by adding Jos van Immerseel leading Anima Eterna on gut strings with Mayumi Seiler fiddling on Zig Zag Territoires.
So we have no lack, no lack at all of meritorious readings to contextualize our listening to Gergiev and Kirov with Sergei Levitin fiddling. Some negative reviews have already been posted, yet I find myself disagreeing. Why?
Firstly, the surround sound is vivid and suitable for this particular work. No, the Mariinsky Theater of Saint Petersburg is not a drier, more analytical venue - and yes, the room reflections which gather and bloom the sound are perhaps more marked than in drier acoustics. But if any music can take a fuller, more resonant venue - provided acoustic blossom does not obscure detail and tonal weight - then surely Scheherazade is a contender. Thanks to multiple channels, then, as my system reads it out on this disc, the super audio edition manages a workable, vivid balance of resonance, detail, and tonal heft. Nobody eclipses anybody else in the band's departments, and my ears do not tell me the whole is diminished by resonance at all.
My worst comparison in this regard has to be the horrible Watford Colosseum recording of Brahms First Symphony, conducted by the interesting Marin Alsop on Naxos super audio - where indeed resonance and swirling circular reflections undid what sounded in passing like a serious interpretation by a notable woman conductor. Compared to that grand sonic failure, this surround sound disc is no failure.
As an interpretation, I do not hear that Gergiev and Kirov and Sergei Levitin are as lacking as other negative reviewers suggest. I hear drama and color and breathing room for the composer's famous melodies, all aplenty. The woodwinds and the strings are sensuous, no doubt. The failures I sometimes find I am hearing under Gergiev - mainly relentless drive and push, all rushing and forcing the musical momentum ahead whether it wants to speed forward or not- do not marr nor mark the performance here. Gergiev's Tchaikovsky symphonies in Vienna, to me, are way too superficially played - and I am ever a fan of Vienna - so here I am pleased to find Gergiev letting the Kirov departments of the orchestra breathe and dance quite a bit more than he may do in other outings with other composers.
When Gergiev lets the band breathe, I do hear charming and sensuous inflections played across all the band groups. And, though Gergiev doesn't taffy-pull, I also hear touches of that special Russian-Slavic soulfulness and folky songfulness which we have long associated with the Russian composers of the Romantic Era in all their nationalistic, glorious rediscovery and renewal.
Will I let Gergiev displace any of the other fav shelf keepers? No, not by a long shot. And it would take an amazing disc in any case, to ever displace the RPO under Beecham with Staryk on EMI. But I cannot agree that Gergiev in super audio surround sound is quite the loser other reviewers make it out to be. So yes, this disc goes to the fav shelf, too.
Nice bonuses are the Borodin Steppes, and the infrequently heard Lyapunov orchestration of Balakirev's virtuous piano work, Islamey. If you are looking for a first Scheherazade, go bargain and get Batiz with Philharmonia London on Naxos. If you want the top of the top of the top, go RPO and Staryk under Beecham. If you just want a solid good one, you can pick from any number of star bands under star conductors - none of whom is particularly awful, no matter what I personally hear and think. Gergeiv, Kirov, Levitin - recommended, for sound, and for performance.