Rimsky-Korsakov's ''Scheherazade'' never seems to lose its ability to enchant and bewitch. Conductors have showcased it for many years on disc, particularly since the advent of decent recording techniques.
The suite is something of a symphony-length tone poem that sets the moods found in several of the legendary storyteller's yarns found in the ''Thousand and One Nights.'' The stereo age brought forth most of the important performances of Rimsky-Korsakov's study in lush exoticism, and now that the digital era is upon us, a new wave of renderings is swelling.
But for me, the touchstone performance has always been Leopold Stokowski's on what used to be London Phase-4 (now available on London 21005). Stokowski was ever a wizard, able to conjure the most extraordinary sounds from an orchestra. He was ever interested in new recording techniques, and had a gift in the studio to hear the way something would sound on the master tape. This ''Scheherazade'' positively leaps out of the speakers and entraps the listener in a sonic spectacular that also happens to be a brilliant reading of the score. No performance since has managed to be so totally compelling.
Loris Tjeknavorian tried to get something similar out of the London Symphony, so the curious might rightly think his performance would give the Stokowski a run for its money. The results - on Chalfont Records (SDG-304) - are dazzling to the ear. This is the most theatrical ''Scheherazade'' yet put to vinyl, and the best recorded on every count. It's just that the performance strives so mightily for effect that Rimsky-Korsakov and ''Scheherazade'' are lost in the shuffle. Anyone seeking to show off a fine stereo will want this album. Anyone seeking a moving reading of the music will need to look further.
As for the digitals, Andre Previn and the Vienna Philharmonic (Philips 6514 231) might seem an auspicious pairing for ''Scheherazade,'' but the conductor was in a detached mood for this performance. The Vienna Philharmonic plays dutifully for him, but the sound is rather boxy and dull. It's all quite disappointing, considering Philips's high batting average with sound and performance quality.
Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia (Stokowski's old orchestra) might seem another good choice, but here (Angel digital DS-37851) Muti is striving for speed and raucous effect while shirking the demands of the score for aural seductiveness, luxuriant textures. He also lacks a firm sense of the programmatic nature of the score. Some have tried to make a case for ''Scheherazade'' as absolute music divorced from a program, but this usually results, as seen here, in a score sapped of dramatic tension. Also, the Philadelphia does not perform well here for Muti.
So where does one turn? To the old Fritz Reiner recording with his Chicago Symphony Orchestra in peak form. The performance has just been reissued on RCA Red Seal's .5 Series (ARP1-4427), another in a startling series of reissuses devoted to this conductor and the orchestra he built into one of the finest ensembles in the world. The sonic restoration makes the performance surprisingly competitive, even in the age of digital sound. Although it's played rather fast, Reiner never misses the sense that stories are being told and moods being set. The Chicago plays magnificently for him, and this release fully captures the aural magic that must have been Reiner and the Chicago live.