Curtis Studio, the label just launched by the Curtis School of Music, makes a proud debut with a fine recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s timeless Scheherazade. The students of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Osmo Vänskä, display impressive sensitivity and assurance in this beloved showpiece.
The first section, evoking the sea, introduces concertmaster Matthew Hakkarainen’s deft and delicately emotional playing and the musicians’ confidence in exposed passages generally. Maestro Vänskä sturdily leads them through the buildups of excitement. A few subtleties of interplay sound very slightly smudged in the louder passages, and the violins as a group aren’t quite the precision machine of a top-tier orchestra’s section. But the spirit and flavors of the music – framed by those indelible themes, of course – come through.
A Vivid Telling Worthy of Scheherazade the Master Storyteller Herself
The hypnotic “Tale of Prince Kalendar” features several excellent soloists – oboe, horn, violin again, and more. As the individual instrumentalists shine, so do the sections, bringing out the music’s dynamic expressiveness and shots of rhythm. The ever-shifting feels and tempos demand and receive sustained focus and alertness. Maestro Vänskä has evidently conveyed to the students, and drawn from them (or rather with them), the music’s vivid pictorial drama.
“The Young Prince and the Princess” features fine work from the woodwinds, tasteful harp from Claire Thai, smoothly flowing unison melodies, and impressive work both skittering and romantic from Hakkarainen. A close listen can reveal tiny imprecisions in synchrony at a few entrances. But all in all the performance is a delight.
A Shining Debut
The final movement is designated with the long descriptive title “Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman.” It’s a great, crashing wrap-up of all that has come before. The performance features fine playing from many corners of the orchestra, including impressive togetherness on the many sequences of sixteenth-note triplets. (It seems that double tonguing is no sweat for Curtis’ trumpeters.) In the stormy “shipwreck” section it’s easy to imagine hearing the wind and the lashing of the waves, while the becalmed ending sounds quite magical.
This Scheherazade was no doubt an important learning experience for the student musicians. For listeners this recording is a creditable account of a work that, while often heard, bears a close listen even if you think you know it well. It repays such a listen, and is an exciting start for the Curtis Studio label.
This digital-only release is available at the major streaming services, with video from the performance available on Apple Music.