Fantasy on Serbian Themes/Rimsky-Korsakov

September 4, 2010

In 1867 with the anticipation of some Slavic guests, Balakirev asked Rimsky-Korsakov to write a fantasy on Serbian themes for orchestra. He provided the thematic material and Rimsky-Korsakov liking the themes wrote the seven minute piece rather quickly. Quoting from his autobiography My Musical Life, “I was not at all carried away by Slavism but rather by the delightful themes Balakirev had selected for me.” It was first performed at Balakirev’s Slavonic Concert on May 12th of 1867. Because it was not written for valve chromatic French horns it was revised twenty years later and the result is what you hear today. With the horn work in a couple of places it was a wonder that it came about at all! It opens with the theme from a horn followed by violin and then flute. To my waxy ears it sounds quite Rimsky-Korsakov like with a wonderful Russian theme, stodgy and stoic, but melodic. Three minutes or so into the work it makes a Wagner statement and goes right into a lively vibrant folk dance. It quickly blends both themes in a slow and vivacious fashion ending in a positive upbeat note. At twenty three this was quite a mature sounding work and one can already hear the use of his orchestral arranging talents.

Golovchin gives a slower very deliberate reading (8 compared to 7 minutes) but the digital recording is well recorded and performed. Not quite as bright and lively as Butt, this available recording is at a budget price from Naxos or as a download on

Butt on the now defunct ASV label gets a nice performance and good tempo, well recorded, from the Philharmonia Orchestra. There is a good distinct sound separation from the reed and flute section in the delicate area of the work. Look for this recording used as new prices are out of sight.

Svetlanov gives his usual excellent conducting abilities and the orchestra plays the work with a lot of emotion. Russians do know how to play their music! However, this recording from the defunct Melodiya label remastered by Warner Bros., has somewhat suffered from the ravages of time and it sounds rather thin in spots.

Jurowski and the Berlin Radio Symphony give an outstanding performance in a slightly slower, but well thought out and recorded performance. The strings convey the necessary air of mystery and the opening horn is perfect tone. The reeds are well recorded and the orchestra certainly sounds like they’ve done all the necessary preparation. This recording is well worth exploring as it also includes the seldom recorded Overture on Three Russian Themes.

The Bakels recording with the Malaysian Philharmonic  just doesn’t get the job done for my tastes.  The ending coda sounds so rushed it was like the orchestra just wanted to finish the piece and go onto something else. While the recording has considerable merit as far as the third symphony is concerned I cannot recommend a purchase for this work.

Discography of Reviewed Recordings:

1….Igor Golovchin conducting the Moscow Symphony Orchestra (Naxos 8.553513) Also includes The Maid of Pskov(Ivan the Terrible), Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh: Symphonic Suite, and Skaza (Fairy Tale).DDD recording from 1996

2….Yondani Butt conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (ASV DCA1024) Also includes The Tsar’s Bride and Symphonies No. 1 and 3. DDD recording from 1998

3….Eugene Svetlanov conducting the Russian Federation State Symphony Orchestra (Warner 2564 69899-4) Includes the complete orchestral works in a 5 CD Set AAD recording from 1969

4….Michail Jurowski conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony (Capriccio C10776) Includes Mlada Suite, Overture on 3 Russian Themes, Sadko, and Russian Easter Overture. DDD recording from 1997.

5….Kees Bakels conducting the Malaysian Philharmonic (BIS CD 1477) Includes Symphonies 1 and 3. A DDD recording from April 2005


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