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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird: Suite (1910) [22:36]
Pulcinella: Suite (1922/4) [23:18]*
Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3 (1908) [11:52]*
Suite No. 1 for Small Orchestra (1925) [4:17]+
Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra (1921) [6:03]+
BBC Symphony Orchestra, *New York Philharmonic, +Ensemble InterContemporain/Pierre Boulez
rec. Walthamstow Town Hall, March 1967; *Manhattan Center, New York, October-November 1975; +Paris, October 1980

The bald designation, "The Firebird Suite," on the front cover is a bit disingenuous. Boulez offers not the familiar suite of 1919 (original orchestration) or 1945 (reduced orchestration), but Stravinsky's first attempted compilation from 1910, the year of the ballet's premiere. This front-loaded selection draws on music from the first two-thirds of the score, ending inconclusively, if loudly, with the Infernal Dance - no Berceuse, no Finale.
Some listeners may justifiably feel that this selection, like the ballet as a whole, includes too much of the padding and not enough of the "good stuff." And Boulez, at first, seems intent on minimizing the score's post-Rimskyan opulence. The Introduction's bass triplets are weighted and evenly stressed, underlining their quiet menace; the motif does take on a more sinuous contour when the upper strings pick it up beginning at 1:55 (track 1). The little back-and-forth slurs for pairs of reeds and muted trumpets at 0:44 are square - partly because the final notes are sustained, rather than clipped as in the 1945 revision - and the bassoon's repeated notes at 2:44 plod.
But even Boulez can't keep the surge out of the whirling scales at 4:20, and from here on the music breathes more naturally, with a sort of waltzy pointillism emerging at 5:08. The Firebird's Entreaties initiates and sustains an air of brooding mystery, despite the woodwinds' overly up-front presence, a matter less of dynamics than of demeanour. The chattering, undulating lightness of the Game with the Golden Apples is more to the point, and I was surprised to hear the clarinets foreshadowing the secondary motif of the Infernal Dance (track 3, 0:59). Those principal reeds - they have a lot to do! - are clear and airy in the Princesses' Round Dance, where the cantabile strings and horn belie Boulez's cold image. Finally, the conductor shapes subsidiary lines in the Infernal Dance so as to bring out the implied counterpoint, making for an unusually active rendering. A strong realization, then, ultimately rendered superfluous by Boulez's complete Firebird (Sony).
I've never heard a bad performance of the Pulcinella suite - even the tonally unalluring accounts of the composer himself (Sony) and of Ernest Ansermet (Decca) have their virtues - and Boulez's is no exception. The conductor's ear for intonation makes the chording of the opening Sinfonia fall into place with unusual precision. The bright, chiffy flute ushering in the Tarantella - marked by an infectious driving impulse - and the bold, round solo trombone of the Duetto (Vivo) bring their respective movements to life. The Gavotta and Minuetto embody a simple, solemn dignity. Overall, however, the performance is satisfactory rather than distinctive. Save in the oddly square Toccata,  the rhythms come across with a sort of impersonal relish, if you'll pardon the oxymoron; and there are occasional passing, but still surprising, ensemble lapses.
No, this program saves the best for last. We really should hear the early Scherzo fantastique more often. Not only is it a dazzling orchestral showpiece, but it represents Stravinsky-without-tears, its sound more French than Russian or starkly "modern." The scherzando outer sections, with their buoyant rhythms, long, arching lines, and brilliant splashes of color, aren't far from the world of Dukas's Sorcerer's Apprentice - but without the encumbering image of Mickey Mouse! - framing a broadly lyrical center section with more than a hint of early Debussy to it. Boulez's performance, drawing the best in accuracy, balance, and alertness from the New York Philharmonic, continues to serve as a touchstone after some thirty years.
The two Suites for Small Orchestra are real miniatures, each cast in four movements, none of which last even two minutes. The generally bright, cheerful mood and clean, colorful textures represent Neo-classicism at its best; the quirky, appealing Valse of the Second Suite - actually completed first; the headnote information is correct, though it looks wrong - is particularly fetching.
The recorded sound holds up consistently and well, the passage of time and changes of venue notwithstanding. Pulcinella seemed a bit drier to me than the rest, but I well may be reacting to the performance itself rather than the engineering. At midprice, recommended for the Scherzo and Suites.
Stephen Francis Vasta


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