When Rimsky-Korsakov first brought out his "Antar" (Op. 9) in 1869, he called it his Second Symphony; in his three subsequent revisions of the score, he labeled it a "symphonic suite." By either designation, "Antar," its four movements filled with the gorgeous orientalism and fairy-tale evocativeness of which Rimsky was such a master, is far too attractive to be such a stranger to us; this point has never been made quite so effectively as in the new Philips digital recording of the work by the Rotterdam Philharmonic under its American conductor David Zinman (9500.971; cassette 7300.971).
Rimsky's music in general is rather neglected in ochestral programs now. While the current Schwann lists no fewer than 25 recordings of his "Scheherazade," that work's very familiarity has acted against it: Like the Greig Piano Concerto and numerous other well-loved works, it is considered "overexposed" and has virtually been banished from serious live concerts. When Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos conducts "Scheherazade" in the opening concerts of the National Symphony Orchestra's new season in September, it will be almost in the nature offf a "novelty." The brilliant "Capriccio espagnol" and "Russian Easter Overture" are also more likely to be encountered on records than in the concert hall, while the lesser-known works slip in and out of the record catalogue almost unnoticed, and hardly ever make it to the hall.
The four performances of "Antar" given by Mstislav Rostropovich and the NSO in March 1981 may well represent this work's only presentation in Washington so far. Even on records, the only current competition faced by the new Philips release is the 1969 Vanguard Cardinal recording by Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony (VCS-10060). Abravanel's is a handsome performance and has the advantage of fitting on a single side as well as being economical (it is especially impressive in the Barclay-Crocker open-reel tape edition -- VAN D 10060); but it is not in the same league as Zinman's.
None of Zinman's earlier recordings, with any orchestra, and none by the Rotterdam Philharmonic, under any conductor, has exhibited quite the level oof musicianship in evidence here. To Zinman, apparently, must go the credit for building on an already solid base to raise the Rotterdam orchestra to this level, and for being able to communicate so remarkably what must be genuine affection and enthusiasm on his paart for this unaccountably neglected work.
Since the final movement of "Antar" does spill over to side two, the record is filled out with a shorter piece, the aforementioned "Russian Easter Overture." In this, one would expect to find the supposedly second-level Dutch orchestra outclassed by the Philadelphians, the Clevelanders, the Chicaoans, the Philharmonia, et al., but Zinman's fervor again brings forth first-rate playing, and the marvelous sound is a real advantage, too, not only when Rimsky lets loose with all those gongs and cymbals but in the mystical effects of his quieter passages.
If Philips should be planning to offer more of Rimsky's seldom-heard works with the same orchestra and conductor (perhaps "Sadko," the "symphonic picture" that preceded the eponymous opera, the suites from "Tsar Saltan," "Christmas Eve" and "The Invisible City of Kitesh," and/or the two actual symphonies), it should find an eager audience. In the meantime, whether the present release serves to push "Antar" into more of our concert halls or not, it is one of the happiest surprises of the record year. Highest recommendation.