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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird (1910 version - full) [45.46]
The Rite of Spring (1910) [32.12]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. 1990s, London. DDD

Having just reviewed Salonen's hard-edged and anti-romantic recording of Messiaen's Turangalila I had fears that this might be the same. Those fears turned out to be misplaced.

The Firebird takes a Rimskian palette and supercharges it with a towering melodic and dramatic imagination. Rimsky hardly ever attained this mix except perhaps in Sheherazade and Antar. The recording is resplendently transparent and deeply detailed with the illusion of depth and breadth outstandingly captured; listen to the pattering col legno in the right-hand channel in The Firebird's Pleading (tr.6). I have had my favourite versions over the years and my first Firebird LP is not yet supplanted. That was on the cheap Contour reissue label - originally on Mercury - LSO/Dorati. That recording remains an astounding monument to the excellence of the analogue medium caught on a good day, with fine engineers and a hall to match. You can still hear it on a Mercury CD. Also very good though not in the same league from an audio viewpoint, is Stravinsky's own recordings of both ballets. The Haitink LPO version of the last 1970s is bland by comparison. This present version is well up to the standard of the Dorati, with intoxication and visceral excitement to be heard in the vehemence of the Infernal Dance of Kaschei's subjects. This is a fantastically conceived reading and as a work it coheres with a quasi-symphonic logic; not something normally associated with ballet scores. Salonen infuses the score with gaudy fairytale colours - a musical counterpart to the illustrations of Kay Nielsen and the designs of Leon Bakst. Only in the general rejoicing of tr. 22 (the finale) was I disappointed in the absence of an awesomely thunderous bass drum something Dorati does not shrink from in his Mercury recording.

The third and last of the grand ballets is The Rite of Spring. This gurgles and stamps, shrieks and flickers just as it should. The Ritual of Abduction shudders with unruly life. The rip and rasp of the massed horns in Ritual of the Rival Tribes is shattering and Salonen's way with the Dance of the Earth is fearsome. He points up the Ravel-allusions in the Mystic Circle of the Young Girls. I have never heard hysteria like that thrown off with such velocity in the howling violins of the final Sacrifical Dance.

The liner notes, often an all too easy target for reviewers of bargain price discs, are by Julian Haylock. They are in English only (as is the case with the Essential Classics series) and run to three detailed pages avoiding musical technicality and informing us about plot and creative and performance history.

Salonen is wholly vindicated in his interpretative choices. Nothing is commonplace and the Sony engineering team have done everyone proud. With one transient cavil I would rate these two pieces as amongst the very best available. Why pay more?

Rob Barnett

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