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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882 - 1971)
The Firebird (1910) first recording of 1910 original version [44’52"]
Petrouchka (1947) 1911, revised 1947 version [34’01"]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Robert Craft.
recorded 27th & 29th November 1996 (The Firebird) and 31st January & 1st February 1997, (Petrouchka), at Abbey Road Studios, London. DDD
Naxos 8.557500 [78.53]

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Why must the record companies make outrageous claims for their new releases. I suppose it is all for making the release seem something out of the ordinary so as to attract additional purchasers. This one, for example is advertised as the "Complete Original Version" and the rear of the sleeve announces "Among the many differences between the present recording and its predecessors is the restoration of two long, valveless trumpets on stage, each playing a single note standing out above the entire orchestra. This is a thrilling effect in all likelihood heard for the first time since 1910 on this recording".

Having raised my expectations for hearing something quite new and different, I was surprised to hear none of the promised thrilling effects. At the very end of the ballet, however, when in the short finale, there were some extra trumpet notes clearly audible, but more absorbed into the general texture of the orchestral sound than "standing out above the whole orchestra".

These porkies are however quite unnecessary in the case of this issue however, as Naxos has a superb coupling of these two ballet scores on this issue. Conducted by Stravinsky’s own assistant (Robert Craft assisted the composer in his complete edition for Sony), Naxos need not fear competition from other issues except perhaps Dorati on Mercury for the Firebird (no Petrouchka on this disc).

The sleeve announces that Craft is in the process of laying down a complete Stravinsky edition, and should they all be of this calibre, Naxos will have another winning series on their hands. However, this issue has not been recorded by Naxos (more porkies) but by Music Masters and as can be seen by the recording dates, some time ago. Still, no matter, as the recording quality is superb, as is the performance with Robert Craft coaxing out of the Philharmonia a standard of playing that would have made even Walter Legge happy.

Long experience with Stravinsky’s scores makes for a Firebird that just sounds right with tenderness (at the beginning of the finale – Band 22) clearly in evidence, with also thrilling virtuosity in the Infernal Dance (Band 16), two points in the score which often act as an indicator as the health of a performance. Look out for the trumpets some 50 seconds before the end, you might miss them. Avid score followers may notice one or two other changes, but they are minor, merely changing the orchestral palette slightly. As most conductors can cause greater changes by balancing within the orchestra, I don’t think we need to be detained further by this aspect of this recording. One point of note is that Craft plays the drum bridge sections between the different tableaux, which some conductors find it fashionable to omit.

After The Firebird, Petrouchka gets underway, with an anonymous pianist clearly enjoying him or herself enormously with the score. The performance shows many insights into the intricacies of the score – note the extremely romantic portrayal of the Mountebank – (Band 24). The Philharmonia woodwind excel themselves and one need never be concerned that this is a budget issue.

This is a first class issue, quite undeserving of the Bull….!!, and very highly recommended.

John Phillips


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