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Igor STRAVINSKY (1892-1971)
The Firebird [Zhar-Ptitsa] Ballet in two scenes (complete original 1910 version for large orchestra) [44.52]
Recorded 29 November 1996
Petrushka Burlesque in four scenes (1911, rev. 1947) [34.01]
Recorded 1 February 1997
Philharmonia Orchestra/Robert Craft
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London, England.
Notes in English and Deutsch.
NAXOS 6.110081 Hybrid SACD [78.53]

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Comparison recordings:

Firebird (1910 version): Charles Dutoit, OSM. Decca 414 409-2

Firebird (Suite 1919): Scherchen, RPO. [ADD mono] Westminster JVC MVCW-14032-3

Petrushka: Michael Tilson Thomas, Philharmonia Orchestra CBS MK 37271

Petrushka: Scherchen, Westminster The Legacy [ADD mono] DG 289 471 245-2

The Firebird ballet was Stravinsky’s first international success; it is by modern standards remarkably conservative, exhibiting the late-romantic lushness of Szymanowski or even Richard Strauss.  Phrases in Firebird recall Stravinsky’s orchestral scherzo “Fireworks” Op 4 of 1904.  The narrative subject of the ballet is a Russian mythological story about a prince and a princess menaced by strange magical creatures but finding happiness together in the end.

This recording claims to be the world premiere recording of the complete 1910 version of Firebird, however that appears not to be correct, since the version by Dutoit and the OSM is also listed as the 1910 version. That version is actually two minutes longer in time than Craft’s. Whether it is in some way incomplete I certainly did not notice in listening to this version. The original scoring was for a very large orchestra, and Stravinsky’s motivation in 1919 in reducing the number of required instruments to those customarily found in a symphony orchestra was to secure more performances.  In this he was sensationally successful as the Firebird Suite is one of his most frequently performed and recorded works. The main differences between the scoring of this older version of the ballet and the more familiar Suite appear to lie mainly in woodwinds, percussion and brass — the notes to the Craft version refer to the use of valveless trumpets — both additional sounds and additional lines of counterpoint. Firebird and L’Histoire du Soldat are the only Stravinsky works that are better known as suites than in the complete form.

This is a fine performance, keeping a rhythmic forward motion while expressing the sensual textural richness of the orchestral writing.  Conductor Craft was for many years a close associate of Stravinsky who demanded that every detail of his scores be clearly audible.  It is speculated that Craft actually conducted many recorded performances credited to Stravinsky; this is denied all around but the rumour persists.  Combined with the detail of five-channel digital recording, re-mastered to DSD, this recording provides a rich, deep, complex musical experience.  Craft’s series of complete recordings of the works of three composers he was associated with — Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Webern — began years ago on the Musical Heritage Society/MusicMasters label in the US, continued on Koch/Schwann, and now appears to be the property of Naxos.  So far these series have included many fine recordings, but not always the finest of each work, as many of Stravinsky’s works in particular have been frequently recorded by eminent artists.  For instance, Craft’s recording of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto is not among the top three versions; I prefer Perlman and Ozawa with the BSO.

Petrushka came right after Firebird and marks a change in Stravinsky’s style.  First, this is a tragic story about death and unrequited love.  Stravinsky never afterwards wrote anything like that, returning to his usual remote literary or mythological subjects and one is tempted to wonder what personal resonances might be found here. The heroine in Petrushka is a shallow unfeeling tart who is infatuated with a huge brute of a man, neither of whom notice the sufferings of the gentle Petrushka who truly loves her, something she can’t understand.  The second remarkable effect in this score is the use of sonic mood-painting in the last act to create a chaotic sense of joyous excitement in the crowd at the circus, something the precise, crystalline, Stravinsky never did again.  I agree with the Disney artists in “Fantasia;” the mood of menace in Sacre du Printemps is intended for a world without people.  Petrushka actually began life as a Concert Piece For Piano and Orchestra, but Diaghilev persuaded Stravinsky to recast it as what became Stravinsky’s most popular ballet, his other ballet scores being performed mostly without dancing as concerted pieces; but Petrushka is danced often.

Stravinsky quoted a well-known Russian song in Petrushka only to discover to his horror that it was still under copyright and was forced to share royalties with that composer.  The same thing happened decades later when Stravinsky orchestrated Happy Birthday only to discover that this tune, too, was still under copyright!

Michael Tilson Thomas is, like Craft, one of our great conductors of modern music, particularly Stravinsky, and he recorded Petrushka digitally with the same orchestra nine years previously.  Hermann Scherchen, another of our greatest conductors of modern music, recorded both the Firebird Suite and Petrushka with the RPO in monophonic sound in 1954.  If you had been present at all three Petrushka recording sessions the Scherchen would certainly be your first choice.  Orchestra and conductor were at the height of their powers. Westminster’s monophonic recording technique featured extensive use of highlight microphones to bring solo instruments out of the orchestra, resulting in odd perspectives at times.  Also, DG’s engineers, in their high resolution re-mastering, have boosted the highs to attempt to attain a spurious super brilliance; you will want to roll off the high frequencies at about 4 db if your player allows it (if not, hang a light jacket over each speaker). Tilson Thomas receives hesitant string playing and adopts some odd tempi; he was still a young firebrand, feeling his way, and although he was making great recordings at this time, this was not one of them.  Of the digital Petrushka recordings, Craft is a clear winner.

For the Firebirds, Craft and Dutoit are neck and neck in overall performance quality with Craft perhaps slightly, but only slightly, ahead in sound.  Scherchen is just a bit rushed sounding in the “Danse de Kastcheï,” but the patented Westminster percussion-in-your-face sound is very exciting.  Here the analogue-to-digital transfer is by MCA/JVC and is balanced in the highs, but the bass could use a 10 db boost (as could the OSM recording).  On the whole, this Craft disk is a winner.  This is however an excellent rather than a legendary recording; someone is likely to better it soon. Watch this space.

Talking about Firebirds, if you somehow missed the film “Fantasia 2000,” be sure to remedy that omission soon; the final number, sections from the Firebird Suite, is one of the very finest scenes in either Fantasia film.

Paul Shoemaker







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