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RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: The Three Symphonies; Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34; Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36. Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Jaervi conducting. Deutsche Grammophon 423604-2 (two CDs).

This is not the first set of the Rimsky-Korsakov symphonies we have had, even on CD. But it is the first to offer consistently vital performances, together with an essay by Richard Taruskin that does an excellent job of relating these pieces not only to the rest of Rimsky's career but to wider historical contexts.In fact, each comes from rather early in that career, originally having been written before the composer was out of his 20s. I say originally because even the really early First Symphony, designated as his Op. 1, was subject to later revision, as were Nos. 2 and 3, to greatly beneficial effect. Especially the "Antar" Symphony (No. 2), long the best-known of the three, which exists in a variety of editions, the last of which Rimsky was adamant about calling a "symphonic suite" a la "Scheherazade."

It is those later editions that are employed here, allowing us to savor not only the Glinka- and Schumann-esque qualities of the outer movements of No. 1 - two of Rimsky's earliest influences - but the almost Tchaikovskian lyricism of the Andante and Scherzo (e.g., the Trio). "Antar," with its pronounced Orientalisms, still seems to me the strongest of the three. But by the time of the Third Symphony what we are getting is a fragrant romanticism that, to my ears, very much foreshadows the later symphonies of Glazunov and Borodin (especially his Third Symphony).

I have had mixed feelings about Estonian conductor Neeme Jaervi's work since he burst on the Western musical scene a decade or so ago. But the first specimen of it that showed me how good he could be was his three-CD set of Rimsky-Korsakov opera suites, released on Chandos in 1984. Here he proves no less responsive to the symphonies, presiding over lithe, splendidly idiomatic readings that capture both the striding impetuosity of the more animated sections and the wistful, almost open-air atmosphere of No. 3.

That means a survey that, for my money, outclasses the comparatively heavy Svetlanov recordings if not Scherchen's mono-era "Antar," now also available on CD (via PRT/Nixa). Yet in some ways Jaervi's "Antar" is the finest performance in his cycle, lyrically effulgent in the quieter pages yet darkly smoldering at its center.

Ditto the appended Russian Easter Overture, despite its acid cymbals only a notch below the even more powerful Fiedler and (again) Scherchen accounts. Against this his "Capriccio Espagnol" seems fast and, frankly, a trifle slam-bang. (It also sounds more harshly recorded.) But there is little to fault in the richly colored middle section, here deeply felt, or the exciting surge of the finale.