Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Fairy's Kiss (1928) [42:25]
Scènes de ballet (1944) [16:08]
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov
rec. City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, November 2008
HYPERION CDA67697 [58:35]

This reading of The Fairy's Kiss, Stravinsky's ballet based on themes by Tchaikovsky, makes for an interesting contrast with the reissued Robert Craft performance (Naxos 8.557503). The difference in approach is notable right at the start. Where Craft elicited an eerie yearning from the opening woodwind octaves, Volkov plays them in a simpler, more folk-like manner, to cooler effect. The ensuing woodwind-and-horn chorale at 1:44 is shapely but restrained. The little passage at 2:40 is crisply attacked and accented, emphasizes its disjunct rhythms and fragmented themes. The horns at the start of the Second Scene - familiar from the "Divertimento" excerpted from this ballet - pump along, steadily accented, missing Craft's hearty cheer.

So it goes through most of the ballet. Volkov plays to the score's neo-classical aspects, while it's Craft, Stravinsky's one-time amanuensis, who, surprisingly, gives the lusher, more Romantic performance. It's a matter of emphasis. Craft's reading underlines that the score is Stravinsky's take on Tchaikovsky; under Volkov, it's distinctly Stravinsky's take on Tchaikovsky. The flute episode over light tremolos at 6:33 suggests not the earlier composer, but Stravinsky's own Firebird ballet. Even the overtly Tchaikovskian gestures, such as the summoning fanfare-like chords ending the First Scene, aren't played for overt dramatic effect.

Where Volkov falls short is in the long Third Scene - ironically, because here he attempts, at least at first, to draw some feeling from the music. The quiet woodwind chords at the start provide a sense of anticipation, with a searching quality in the broad melody. The passage at 3:05 has a nice lilt, with the rushing violin answers and dropping woodwind scales lending the passage a distinctly Tchaikovskian cast. The oboe theme at 4:14 is simple and lyrical. Even in this movement, however, the more languid sections, which don't fit neatly into the conductor's game-plan, bring their longueurs.

The Scènes de ballet are the fruit of a most unlikely commission - from the impresario Billy Rose, who wanted a ballet interlude for one of his Ziegfeld shows. It's a brisk neo-classical score, less formidable than its hard-edged opening chords might suggest; still, one can only imagine the reaction of an audience that paid to hear Cole Porter and Benny Goodman! Here Volkov's crisp, clean approach, with tempi that are mobile but never driven, pays off in a vital, rhythmically infectious performance. He even sneaks a hint of vibrancy into the brief Melodrama (track 13).

The BBC Scottish Symphony plays handsomely throughout the program. If I prefer the London Symphony's glowing warmth in Craft's Fairy's Kiss, the polished, well-balanced sounds of Volkov's Scènes leave Stravinsky's own version (Sony) decidedly outclassed. And, in this production, Hyperion strikes the right balance between direct and reflected sound, incorporating just enough ambience to enhance the sonority, but not so much as to blunt or obscure Stravinsky's characteristic, lucid textures.

A strong Scènes de ballet, with Craft's Naxos album of The Fairy's Kiss as a low-cost supplement.

Stephen Francis Vasta

A strong Scènes de ballet, with Craft's Naxos album of The Fairy's Kiss as a low-cost supplement.