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Stravinsky (1882-1971) – Ballet Suite: “The Firebird” (1945 version)
The Enchanted Lake’s exquisite perfumes, Kikimora’s ability to ravage the vestiges of childhood fright-bones; these testaments to Liadov’s exceptionally vivid aural imagination attracted Diaghilev like a fly to a jam-pot. However, Diaghilev was well aware that Liadov was both fastidious and - to put it bluntly - bone-idle. Hence, hedging his bets, whilst commissioning Liadov for his new ballet, the hard-nosed impresario retained as backup a virtually unknown but almost certainly more dependable composer. Wise move. The posters were already up when Liadov calmly reassured Diaghilev that the work was progressing well: “In fact, just this morning I bought some ruled paper.” The camel’s back snapped: Diaghilev contacted his backup who, presumably also aware of Liadov’s foibles, had already been beavering away for a month. So it was, in 1910, that Liadov passed on the chance of a lifetime, and Igor Stravinsky scored a home-run with The Firebird.
And what a score it is! It wears its main influence with pride. He owed his music’s rich iridescence to the shining example of Rimsky-Korsakov, his respected mentor and friend. Yet, a bit like the original “Alien”, lurking within and threatening to sunder the sequinned surface are sundry barbs. Within three short years, the real Stravinsky had burst forth, stunning an unsuspecting World.
As its composer admitted, the Firebird is “lacking in true counterpoint” and its orchestra is “wastefully large”,. The former hardly matters when set against the composer’s talent for and willingness to comply with the strictures of the form. The latter was an extravagance that he addressed in his 1919 concert suite. The 1945 version was prompted rather more prosaically, primarily to “refresh” copyright. However, being made during Stravinsky’s neo-classical phase, this final edition is in some ways even cleaner and leaner than the 1919.
Yet, with more of the score, including some of the magical transitional material, the music retains most of its essential, hypnotic power. Even with many years of familiarity, I have only to hear the pitch-black brooding of the opening bars to be transported from this World into that other - of the bold Ivan, the evil Kaschei , and the exotic Firebird.
Really, with music like this a synopsis is superfluous – just listen and let your imagination run riot. Should you feel the need of a brief prompt:
Introduction: In the depths of night Ivan Tsarevich stumbles on a magical garden.
Prelude, Dance and Variations of the Firebird: Ivan espies his quarry, the fabulous Firebird.
Pantomime 1, Pas de Deux, Pantomime 2: The Firebird pleads with her captor. Acquiescing and freeing his prize, he wisely accepts a feather as token of “one good turn”. At dawn, encountering thirteen princesses, Ivan learns that the garden belongs to the wicked wizard, Kaschei. By “virtue” of his wizardry, he also “owns” the princesses.
Scherzo, Pantomime 3: Seemingly unfazed by their sorry predicament, the princesses play with some golden apples. Ivan, naturally, falls in love with the most beautiful princess of all.
Khorovod: In seductive celebration of this inevitability, the princesses perform a round-dance. Ivan vows to rescue them. He runs smack into the welcoming arms of the denizens of Castle Kaschei. Infernal Dance: Using that convenient feather, Ivan invokes the Firebird, who enchants the assembled into a furious dance . . .
Lullaby: . . after which, of course, they all fall into an enchanted sleep. The Firebird guides Ivan to a huge egg, containing Kaschei’s soul. Fearlessly, Ivan smashes the egg, thereby fulfilling his vow, and precipitating a profound but temporary darkness.
Finale: And they all - with the obvious exception of Kaschei and company - lived happily ever after.
© Paul Serotsky
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