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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
CD1 The Firebird (1910)
Scherzo à la russe, version for jazz band (1944)
Four Studies (1952 version)
Scherzo à la russe, orchestral version (1943-44)
CD2 Petrushka (1911)
Symphony in Three Movements (1942-45)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
Rec: Arts Centre, University of Warwick, England, Dec 1986, Dec 1897. DDD
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 7243 5 85538 2 6 [65:11 + 56:44]

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 famous overnight.

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.

Michael Cookson

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