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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
CD 1 [70:12]
The Rite of Spring (1913, rev. 1947) [34:54]
Petrushka (1911, rev. 1947) [35:05]
CD 2 [77:46]
The Firebird (1910) [47:25]
Apollo (1927, rev. 1947) [30:07]
Peter Donohoe (piano) (Petrushka)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. Arts Centre, University of Warwick, December 1987 (Rite); 3-4 October 1986 (Petrushka); October 1987 (Firebird);. April 1988 (Apollo). DDD
EMI CLASSICS 20TH CENTURY CLASSICS 50999 2 06876 2 5 [70:12 + 77:46]
Experience Classicsonline


Stravinsky’s ballet scores show the composer at his remarkable best with an astonishing range of music: there is the lush Romanticism of The Firebird, the surprising neo-Classicism of Apollo and the ever-surprising power of The Rite. At a bargain price this set collects his four best known ballet scores together in performances that could scarcely be bettered.

The Rite poses a problem to us in the 21st Century, one nearly as acute as that faced by its audience at the famous premiere. For this work, which is now securely part of the classical canon, how do we keep it fresh and shocking in the way that Stravinsky intended it to be? Rattle’s answer is by scrupulous attention to detail. Gergiev surrounds this score in a red mist: Rattle delineates every single chord and note in a way that is as alarming as it is revelatory. The temptation for too many conductors is to charge through the score relentlessly. Not Rattle: the clarity with which he treats the score leads constantly to reappraisals of this extraordinary work. Listen to The Glorification of the Chosen One and you will hear striking detail in the midst of the pandemonium. Rattle actually slows down the tempo for the final Sacrificial Dance but, rather than turning it into a plod, it increases the savagery of the scene by a shockingly believable sense of the victim dancing herself to death. If the detail is what interests you about the Rite then this is the recording to go for.

Detail is also a striking feature of Petrushka, though here there is more a driving sense of narrative. The Shrovetide Fair has a raw, peculiarly Russian feel about it, while the scenes in the puppets’ rooms are lively and exciting. The characters are well drawn too: listening to the Dance of the Ballerina, we wonder how Petrushka could ever fall for such a heard-hearted beast! The various dances in the fourth part are virtuosic and well contrasted, and the appearance of Petrushka’s ghost at the end casts a perceptible chill over the final bars.

Rattle’s Firebird is unashamedly Romantic. He revels in the colour of the opening, depicting Kashchey’s garden in its seductive attraction but simultaneously its danger: the noise (not music) made by the strings as Ivan enters the garden is genuinely chilling. The Firebird itself is a light, filigree creature in the CBSO’s hands with lively instrumental colour for both its capture and its lovely supplication scene. The darker elements are here too, with Kashchey, his palace and his creatures painted with a sinister gloom. The narrative thrust remains, though, with everything building towards the apotheosis of the finale. This moment, one of the most purely beautiful that Stravinsky ever wrote, builds like a tidal wave to a joyous climax.

Moving from this to the neo-classical world of Apollo is something of a shock! Stravinsky’s conscious adoption of Rococo style and, to a lesser extent, instrumentation produces a colour and context that we don’t expect from him. It works well on its own terms, though. The warm sound produced by the CBSO strings is fitting to describe the Olympian scene. Apollo’s birth unfolds slowly, and his relationship with the three Muses is delicately drawn in the contrasting variations which are disarmingly tender.

This is the best way I can think of to survey Stravinsky’s remarkable achievements in the world of ballet, with top-class playing and impeccable recorded sound. With Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky remains the greatest ballet composer of all and certainly the greatest of the 20th Century. Lovers of rhythm, instrumentation and sheer orchestral passion will not be disappointed.

Simon Thompson



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