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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird (Suite, 1919 version) [19:16]
Petrushka (1947 version) [33:21]
Fireworks, op.4 (1908) [3:43]
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/David Zinman
rec. Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, March 6-7 1991
TELARC CD-80270 [56:36]

Juxtaposing these two wonderful ballets is always instructive; there’s just a couple of years, at most, between their completion, yet Stravinsky travelled an enormous distance in his musical development in that short period. Firebird emerges clearly from the world of Rimsky-Korsakov, even using Russian folk material introduced to Stravinsky by the older composer. By the time Petrushka emerged, he was pressing forward into the harmonic, rhythmic and orchestral world of The Rite of Spring.

Yes, the two major works here are over-represented in the catalogue. But this issue is a bit special; David Zinman is a conductor with an exceptionally fine ear for orchestral sonority, and is at his absolute best in this sort of repertoire. That, allied to the exceptional sound quality achieved by the Telarc engineers, makes this a stunningly memorable sonic experience.

So many wondrous details come pouring out of the Firebird score; the timpani’s tattoo towards the end of Kastchei’s Infernal Dance; the delicate string harmonics in the reprise of the Berceuse melody; the little trickles of harp tone as the finale gathers momentum; and so many more delights for the ear. Yet this is not one of those ‘demonstration’ discs, for the orchestral balance has a truthfulness about it that makes the clarity that much more beguiling. And the big moments are really huge, with bass drum strokes approaching the conclusion that nearly caused my speakers to have a nervous breakdown!

Zinman’s pacing of Firebird is also outstanding. He hits tempi which have the quality of seeming natural and inevitable, and he has that irreplaceable quality for Stravinsky conductors, an unerring sense of pulse.

The same qualities illuminate Petrushka too, enhanced by the greater subtlety of the later work. This is the first time I have heard the Baltimore Symphony on disc, but they rise to the challenge of these showpieces marvellously well. Zinman proves to be the ideal interpreter, achieving a chamber music intimacy for the ‘indoor’ scenes – Petrushka alone in his cell, the Moor in his attempting to seduce the Ballerina – and a teeming vigour for the fairground episodes. The conclusion is perfectly achieved, with a real sense of shock and disintegration, though perhaps the dropped tambourine - which the composer asks for - is a little too loud, for this can all too easily sound like an unfortunate accident in the percussion section!

The spectacular early work Fireworks completes this outstanding bargain. If you want a coupling of these two great ballets, you’ll find it hard to beat this one.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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