EMI Classics have released a fine double CD set
of five Stravinsky orchestral works on their budget-priced Gemini
series. The works have all been released previously in the late
1980s. They were recorded by Sir Simon Rattle with the City of
Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the Arts Centre, University of
Warwick which proves itself to be a superb recording venue. There
are not too many new recordings of Stravinsky’s works being
released at the moment so it is good to have another set available
even if the material has been released previously.
Stravinsky became a cyclonic power in the symphonic
music of his time with a series of masterworks for the ballet
which included The Firebird, The Rite of Spring and Petrushka.
This music descended on the world with shattering impact. The
Firebird would be memorable as marking a new dawn in the evolution
of symphonic ballet. It was clearly the most important ballet
score since Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty (1879) and
The Nutcracker (1892). Stravinsky wrote the dramatic one-act ballet
The Firebird for Diaghilev and the work, premiered at the Ballet
Russe in Paris in 1910, was a resounding success making the composer
The Firebird with its long and flowing melodies
is given a sensitive, almost beautiful, performance by artists
so adept at expressing the passion and drama of the score. My
first choice in The Firebird is the version by Bernard Haitink
with the LSO on Philips Duo 438 350-2 for its additional sharpness
of attack in a rugged and thrilling performance.
Written for Diaghilev in 1911 Petrushka depicts
the life of the Russian lower classes, with puppets behaving like
people when they are alone and people behaving like puppets when
they are together. Rattle and the CBSO offer a fine performance
of this bold and colourful score which overflows with variety
and experimentation. For all Sir Simon’s commitment he cannot
match the excitement, rhythmic punch and class of the classic
mono performance from Leopold Stokowski with the Philharmonia
Orchestra on Testament SBT 1139.
The final major work is the Symphony in Three
Movements which Stravinsky composed between 1942 and 1945. The
score is completely independent of formal structure with no sonata
form used and no development and reapplication sections. Sir Simon’s
scrupulous reading offers plenty of accuracy and neatness in a
performance where I would have liked a touch more vitality and
rhythmic involvement. My first choice in this work is undoubtedly
the version from Sir Alexander Gibson and the RSNO on Chandos
CHAN 2418 which is so beautifully played with flair and finesse
and a real sense of connection.
The remaining works Scherzo à la russe
in alternative versions for both jazz band and for orchestra and
also the Four Studies (1952 version) are of relatively minor importance
but played here with no less concentration.
Rattle’s performances with the CBSO are
appealing and finely executed with enthusiasm and precision. However,
for each of the major three works there are preferred alternatives
available in the catalogues all of which have that additional
touch of rhythmic drive so essential in Stravinsky.