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Renaissance - Scheherazade And Other Stories CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

4.31 | 1080 ratings

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5 stars Did You Know .....

..... Jon Camp of Renaissance was directly influenced by, and modelled his playing on, Chris Squire of Yes? And did you know that John Tout, Renaissance's virtuoso pianist, played on John Lennon's song Crippled Inside from his Imagine album?

The early 70s was an exciting time for music as bands explored a new album-centric world, free from the shackles of 3 minute pop singles and over-attentive record companies. I was there, avidly soaking up as much as I could of all the weird and wonderful sounds emanating from these Prog pioneers. In 1974 I was hooked by Renaissance's take on intricate arrangements and classical-like themes on the album 'Turn Of The Cards'. Then in 1975, a good year for Prog, they upped-the-ante with arguably their finest creation, the magnificent epic Song Of Scheherazade, ably supported by 3 shorter songs to become one of the crowning achievements of Prog's golden years. All members pulled together and performed at their best: Annie Haslam's 5 octave voice; John Tout's delectable piano; Michael Dunford's subtle but essential acoustic guitar; Jon Camp's melodic bass; and Terry Sullivan's understated bedrock drumming. This is the sound of a band at their peak.

Actually an original suite constructed around 3 songs, Song Of Scheherazade tells the familiar tale of a cuckolded Sultan of Baghdad taking and killing a virgin bride each day in revenge for his wife's actions. The beautiful Scheherazade bewitched him with exotic tales of eastern mysticism until he falls in love with her. Though it may give a cursory nod to classical composer Rimsky-Korsakov it is not based on his work, being entirely the invention of the band arising from Michael Dunford's fascination with the story. The tale is told by a series of musical interludes, each characterising an element of the story, cleverly conjuring an atmosphere of the Orient without quoting directly from it. The 3 songs are sung in the third person, ie as if by a narrator or story-teller, with Annie Haslam singing the verses about Scheherazade while Jon Camp sings of the Sultan.

Tony Cox has achieved an astonishingly seamless integration of band and orchestra such that all instruments sound natural together. His orchestrations make full use of the many contrasting voices of an orchestra: choir, woodwind, brass and percussion all take their turn in the spotlight alongside John Tout's exquisite piano and Annie's unique voice, adding their own special texture to an intricate and adventurous mix. Sometimes dark and foreboding, at others light and airy, yet the arrangements never become overpowering, fluidly moving from a majestic sweep of the violins to a delicate flute or maybe a strident brass. All play their part to perfection as the story unfolds.

An (imaginary) curtain opens as a brass fanfare [Fanfare] sets the scene before a minor chord progression introduces us to the wife and her lover having a secret tryst [The Betrayal]. Alas, they are soon discovered and 'all hell' breaks out: the king decrees that from now on he will each night take to bed a new bride before executing her at dawn [The Sultan]. Elegant bass and mournful choir figures develop into a beautiful lilting rhythm and instantly recognisable melody as Jon Camp sings of the Sultan's foul deeds. Anticipation builds towards the magnificent grandeur of the 'Scheherazade theme' as Annie tells us how "Scheherazade bewitched him / with songs of jewelled keys ..... a thousand and one nights she sang / to entertain her king" before a swooping bass leads to a soaring climax as "she sings, Scheherazade, Scheherazade ....". Sheer bliss. Love Theme is a gentle piano piece representing the flowering of love, both between the Sultan and Scheherazade, and also the subject of one of her tales which follows, The Young Prince And Princess (As Told By Scheherazade) sung by Annie in sultry mood.

It is daybreak and gradually the city awakens. But today will be different, because the Sultan has renounced his vow - Scheherazade will be his permanent Queen. The city excitedly prepares for a great feast of rejoicing [Festival Preparations] with much hustle and bustle, a busy scene represented by dexterous use of melody and counter-melody, as well as call-and-response vocals, which puts me in mind of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta! When all is ready, we return to the Sultan [Fugue For The Sultan], introduced by a tender flute melody as he is ensnared by Scheherazade's beauty. So he begins to live again, freed from his mood of black despair, as a jaunty piano theme shows him rejoicing with peace and happiness, a theme developed further with the orchestra. The bass rumbles into action and so begins The Festival, a faster more energetic song which succeeds in building tension towards a climactic reprise of the majestic 'Scheherazade theme', with full orchestra and choir supporting Annie before a key change lifts it onto another plane. Annie hits one of her Really High notes to conclude before a short Finale brings the piece to rest as the curtain closes.

Trip To The Fair - the story goes that Annie went on a date with Roy Wood (The Move/ELO/Wizard). After a meal they decided to visit a local fair, but on arrival found it was closed. She told Betty Thatcher about it and Betty - Cornish poetess and Renaissance lyricist - wrote these lyrics, turning it into something of a nightmare as "wheels began turning I started to scream". Michael Dunford and John Tout skillfully wove an atmospheric musical picture, full of ghostly fairground rides and the sights and sounds of "voices of yesterday". Two things strike me: a pervading disharmonic tension as ethereal fairground noises swirl around us; and the jazzed-up instrumental central break with xylophone and piano alternating.

The Vultures Fly High originated as a lyric Betty Thatcher wrote for Wishbone Ash but was re-written because Annie felt it was "too dark"! Even so it is an unusually bleak and depressing subject, perversely sung in a snappy up-tempo 3-minute pop song Renaissance-style with a sparser arrangement! They still manage a little Prog twist in the middle with a key change and some lush synth-strings. But, who are The Vultures? Press? Government? Or simply people who always put you down, who make you feel small?

Ocean Gypsy is a stunningly beautiful slow ballad dripping with melancholy and oozing pathos, written by Thatcher after watching the sun-rise and moon-set at dawn over the sea from her home in Cornwall. She imagined them as lovers destined never to meet, hence the "ocean gypsy of the moon" who dies abandoned and alone as the "oceans weep for her". Another wonderful tune plucked out of the air by Michael Dunford, gently sung by Annie with sympathetic orchestral accompaniment swelling into an uplifting chorus.

In Conclusion I have known and loved this album, man and .... younger man (!) for over 30 years and it still sounds as good now as it did all those years ago. The Song Of Scheherazade is Renaissance's only foray into the true Prog epic and what an incredible achievement it was. To think they had reached this level of sophistication just 3 years after their first album together [this line-up] is astonishing. And, when you factor in that the whole album was recorded in less than a month [how long would it have taken today, I wonder?], it really does put it into perspective. I cannot find fault with anything here. It is a masterpiece of modern music and deserves to be in every music lover's collection.

1001 stars ....

Joolz | 5/5 |


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