Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
CD 1
The Rite of Spring (1913, rev.1947)1 [34:54]
Petrushka (1911, rev.1947)2 [35:05]
CD 2
The Firebird (1910)3 [47:25]
Apollo (rev.1947)4 [30:07]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
rec. 19-21 December 19871, 3-4 October 19862, 16-17 October 19873, 30 April-1 May 19884, Arts Centre, University of Warwick, UK. DDD.
EMI CLASSICS 9 67711 2 [70:12 + 77:46]

To have Sir Simon Rattle’s versions of the four major Stravinsky ballets at budget price is almost a self-recommending bargain; until recently, his highly-rated CD of Apollo and The Rite of Spring was still on offer at full price and, thus, more expensive than the whole of this 2-CD set, one of twenty such sets of ballet music recently reissued by EMI Classics.

Actually, though, this is not a unique bargain. This is as a result of the irritating habit which EMI and others have of reshuffling and repeating reissues. As recently as the summer of 2008 they issued the selfsame coupling of these four ballets as part of their 20th-Century Classics line 2 06876 2, recommended here on MusicWeb International by Simon Thompson, who thought it ‘the best way I can think of to survey Stravinsky’s remarkable achievements in the world of ballet, with top-class playing and impeccable recorded sound.’ - see review. I may part company with ST on some details, but I can confidently echo that recommendation. The matrix numbers indicate that the discs have been re-cut for the latest reissue, but otherwise honours must perforce remain even with the earlier reissue, which seems to remain available.

If you’re looking for just The Firebird and Petrushka, there is yet another budget-price permutation on the Gemini label, where the couplings are two versions of Scherzo à la Russe, Four Studies and the Symphony in Three Movements (5 85538 2). Michael Cookson recommended this set, though with the reservation that ‘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’. - see review.

Both of these remain available, for around the same very reasonable price as the newcomer. To complicate matters still further, there is also a 4-CD set containing the four ballets and other works and costing slightly more than twice as much as any of the 2-CD sets (Simon Rattle Edition - Stravinsky, 2 42754 2).

My personal preferences remain with the composer himself and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in The Rite of Spring. This is mercifully shorn of his halting English account of the work’s composition and première with which it originally came coupled on Philips and later on CBS. It’s now generously combined with an almost equally authoritative performance of The Firebird (Sony Theta SMK89875 at lower-mid-price) or with Petrushka on a CBS download from amazon. The recording may be 50 years old, but it still sounds well - there’s no need for Sony to be coy about the date, or even to imply a later date than is the case by omitting those magic letters ADD and stating ‘original sound recording made by Sony Music Entertainments’. It was, in fact, made by American Columbia even before they became CBS, let alone before the Sony take-over. I also very much prefer having The Firebird before The Rite of Spring, as on the Sony recording.

Alternatively, Antal Doráti’s Mercury/Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra account of The Rite has a special place in my affection; inexplicably, it seems to be deleted except as part of a 5-CD set Antal Doráti Conducts (475 6856). His later Detroit version is also available only as part of a 5-CD or 6-CD set; the Minneapolis version is preferable.

Rattle takes the opening section of The Rite of Spring at a slower tempo than Stravinsky. There are fewer tracks on the EMI recording than the Sony, which makes exact comparison difficult, but Rattle’s 8:07 for track 1 compares with 7:17 for the equivalent four tracks (trs.23-25) on Sony. Rattle is only one second faster than Bernard Haitink, whose LPO recording is sometimes thought too laid-back, despite its rosette in the Penguin Guide. (Philips Duo 438 350 2, with Apollo, Firebird and Petrushka, or on recently deleted Eloquence 468 186-2 with Petrushka). Speed alone is never the sole criterion - Doráti (Detroit) is actually a few seconds slower than Rattle in this section - but Rattle and Haitink just miss the sheer ferocity unleashed by Stravinsky and Doráti. Doráti’s timings on his early Minneapolis recording are slightly faster even than Stravinsky’s; will someone please restore this to the catalogue in a single-CD format?

In the rest of Part One, the Adoration of the Earth, and throughout Part Two, the Sacrifice, Rattle and Haitink are consistently slower than Stravinsky; it’s a matter of swings and roundabouts between the composer and Doráti (Detroit), but the latter is often as forceful as the former even in those sections where he is a little slower. Where it really counts, as in the concluding Sacrificial Dance, where both take 4:34, Stravinsky and Doráti are very close, as also are Rattle and Haitink (5:00 and 4:55 respectively in that final section). Even Sir Colin Davis’s admired recording (Philips 2 CDs, 464 744 2) lacks the last degree of savagery here, though his timing of 4:47 falls exactly between Stravinsky and Rattle. I’m surprised to find that the Davis recording is apparently deleted; it’s still available as a download from passionato.

Simon Thompson rightly points to the benefits obtained from Rattle’s close attention to detail and his refusal to push the tempo; I know what he means, but I still prefer Stravinsky and Doráti in the very sections to which ST points as strengths in Rattle’s version. I admire Rattle and Haitink but I thrill to Doráti/Minneapolis and Stravinsky - perhaps simply because those were the first two recordings, along with Monteux on RCA, through which I got to know the music.

Petrushka is, inevitably, an anti-climax after The Rite; I’d prefer them to be placed the other way round. There’s nowhere worth going after that final Sacrificial Dance. Otherwise I’m entirely in agreement with ST in admiring the detail of Rattle’s performance. BBC Radio 3 seems to play this work in one version or another almost every week, but I never tire of hearing it and it seems to lend itself to a range of interpretations. Haitink chooses the 1911 version, Rattle the 1947, so I can’t directly compare the two, nor do I any longer have either of the classic Monteux recordings of this work for comparison, but I don’t think there is any better version on the market than Rattle’s.

If Rattle is a little restrained in The Rite of Spring, his Firebird has seemed too forthright to some. For my money, however, I agree with Simon Thompson that this is an attractively colourful performance and I rank it with the best, but not in preference to Stravinsky himself, whose recording, once again, benefits from slightly faster tempi. Compare the two versions of the concluding section, where Kaschchei’s spells are broken - 2:45 from Stravinsky, still very powerful from Rattle but, at 3:10, a shade more deliberate.

Other recommendations for The Firebird include the LSO/Doráti Mercury recording - sadly, also currently unavailable, except as a download - and Ansermet. An inexpensive 2-CD Double Decca set (443 467 2) is worth buying for Ansermet’s version of The Firebird alone, though the other ballets come off less well. Otherwise, wait in hope of The Firebird appearing in Australian Eloquence’s unfurling Ansermet Edition. Michael Cookson preferred Haitink on Philips Duo 438 350-2, but that includes his performance of The Rite of Spring which I think inferior to Rattle among the more restrained versions.

The concluding work on CD2, Apollo, is cast in a very different, neo-classical style. Once again, I agree with ST that this is one of the best performances, worthy to rank with Karajan, unfortunately coupled with his lacklustre Rite of Spring, Marriner and Craft, and preferable to Janiczek’s recent version on Linn. Please refer to my October 2009 Download Roundup for the Linn. See also reviews of Craft’s performances of Apollo, Agon and Orpheus, on Naxos 8.557502, by Jonathan Woolf, John Philips and Tony Haywood. You may prefer the logic of having the three Greek ballets together on a well-filled CD; otherwise, Rattle will do fine, especially as Marriner’s version of Apollo is not currently available. Why are so many good Stravinsky recordings deleted?

I’ve mentioned the multi-availability of Rattle’s Stravinsky. There is yet another inexpensive EMI 2-CD set which merits consideration, containing Rite of Spring, Petrushka, Pulcinella, Suites 1 and 2 and Danses Concertantes, conducted by Ricardo Muti and Neville Marriner. Featuring brisk accounts of The Rite of Spring and Petrushka and an idiomatic performance of the complete Pulcinella, this was formerly available on EMI Classics Double Forte (5743052) and will, presumably, be reissued on Gemini in due course.

For all my reservations about Sir Simon Rattle’s performances here, there are enough advantages for me to want to keep his set alongside the Sony/Stravinsky and to pension off Haitink’s restrained account of The Rite of Spring in favour of Rattle’s similar, better executed, interpretation. The EMI recordings are good throughout and the presentation good, with informative notes, rather fuller than usual with EMI Classics’ 2-CD budget sets.

Brian Wilson