RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
L’Oiseau de Feu (The Firebird) (Complete 1910 version) [48:27]
Petrouchka (Petrushka) (Burlesque in four scenes, 1911: 1947 version) [36:24]
La Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) (Pictures from pagan Russia in two parts, 1913: 1947 version) [35:06]
Pulcinella, ballet in one act (1965 version)** [39:57]
Maria Masycheva (piano)*; Renata Pokupic (mezzo)**, Kenneth Tarver (tenor)**, Andrew Foster-Williams (bass)**
Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra/Yakov Kreizberg
rec. 31 May-7 June 2010, Auditorium Rainier III, Monaco. DDD.
OPMC CLASSICS OPMC001 [3 CDs: 48:27 + 36:24 + 75:03]
This recording was released very soon after the news of the early death of its conductor. It was his first - and, perhaps, the only - recording with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic, whose directorship he had just taken over. I might have imagined that sad coincidence would have attracted more interest for these performances but perhaps the near-simultaneous release of a recording of Petrushka and Rite of Spring on the BIS label (BIS-SACD-1474) pushed them off centre-stage.
The BIS recording has divided opinion: three reviews which I’ve seen gave it the highest accolade, including Dominy Clements who made it his Recording of the Month - see review - but others have found it under-characterised. For what it’s worth, I’m with Dominy on this one: there’s absolutely no lack of energy in Petrushka, which I enjoyed far more than the routine performances to which it’s frequently exposed on weekday afternoons on BBC Radio 3. Though Litton’s Rite is a little fast in places - overall, he takes just under two minutes less than Kreizberg - it’s never brusque.
At first sight, with two of the three CDs looking decidedly short, the OPMC album appears to offer poor value, but the selling price, around £19 in the UK, has been adjusted to allow for that. It’s difficult to see how the four ballets could have been coupled in any other way.
As seen in the booklet, the Monte Carlo Philharmonic is a large orchestra, but it shows itself to be capable of playing very delicately here, especially in the Firebird (CD 1). I wondered at first if there wasn’t just a little too much delicacy, but that’s greatly preferable to making this work sound too brash. There are pre-echoes of Rite of Spring, but they mustn’t be exaggerated. In any case, the arrival of Kastchei brings drama enough: try the Infernal Dance (track 19).
The BIS recording comes in SACD form or as a 24-bit download from eclassical.com. To get a sense of the performance I listened to it from the Naxos Music Library, but the eclassical.com download is the one to go for. OPMC offer only ‘ordinary’ CD, but there can be no complaints except from those who demand surround sound. Track 16 of CD 1, the Intercession of the Princesses, and track 19, the Infernal Dance, jointly provide a good demonstration of the range and truthfulness of the recorded sound. Overall, the recordings benefit from a slight increase from the normal listening volume.
The opening of Petrushka captures the bustling atmosphere of the Shrovetide Fair and an equally effective Russian dance rounds off the first tableau. The two moods of the second tableau - Petrushka’s reflection on the sadness of his lot and his brief outbursts of passion for the ballerina - are well contrasted. You may well be thinking that any good performance brings out these qualities and, indeed, Litton does so too, yet there is a feeling that Kreizberg does them just that little bit better. That’s true, too for the remainder of the performance. The transition from track seven, the Dance of the Wet Nurses, to the peasant and his bear on track eight is especially well handled. For all that it receives too many routine performances, Petrushka is, on balance, my favourite Stravinsky ballet and, while both Litton and Kreizberg confirm its status for me, the latter does so slightly more effectively.
If anything, The Rite of Spring opens even more impressively - as haunting and evocative an introduction as any that I remember, including even Stravinsky’s own recording, followed by most insistent Augurs of Spring. Both these opening sections are taken slightly more slowly than by Stravinsky, yet there is more than enough energy. Indeed, Kreizberg is consistently slower than Stravinsky - at times, as in the Spring Round Dances, the largo introduction to Part Two and the Ritual Action of the Elders, significantly so - yet the overall impression is that this is as energetic a Rite as any. Though Kreizberg takes 35:06 overall as against Litton’s 33:24, there’s more power and ferocity in his version, even matching Antal Doráti’s incredible tour de force with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra which clocks in at 29:57. Of the versions which I know well, only Simon Rattle and Bernard Haitink adopt tempi almost as spacious as Kreizberg and I thought Rattle a shade too slow in my recent review of his two-CD set of the Stravinsky ballets (see below).
While Haitink is also often regarded as too laid-back, the same charge cannot be levelled against Kreizberg, demonstrating once again that tempo is only one factor among many in determining the success of a performance. The final Sacrificial Dance takes 4:59 - almost half a minute longer than Stravinsky himself, yet there’s plenty of power in this conclusion of Kreizberg’s performance. The two extremes for this ballet, Doráti in Minneapolis - his later Detroit version is not quite so fast - and the new Kreizberg recording bring equally memorable and powerful interpretations.
CD3 concludes with a fine performance of Pulcinella, the complete score with vocal contributions, not the more familiar Suite. Though we now know that most of the pieces which Stravinsky ‘borrowed’, as he thought from Pergolesi, are not by him, it’s the sort of confection in the manner of Respighi’s La Boutique Fantasque that I enjoy and I’m always surprised that it’s not better known. It’s not new wine in an old bottle - a practice strongly disapproved of in the Gospels - nor even like the restoration of an old master, since Stravinsky makes the ‘borrowed’ music all his own.
Though I haven’t heard Litton in surround sound, I can’t imagine that the BIS SACD is much, if any, brighter, more immediate, or better balanced than the OPMC CD. I thought that Firebird and Petrushka sounded exceptionally well, yet The Rite of Spring manages to sound even more impressive.
The booklet contains helpful synopses of the ballets but the English translations are not always idiomatic. The puppeteer is correctly so named in the track details of Petrushka but repeatedly referred to as a ‘charlatan’ in the synopsis, an over-literal translation of the French. Similarly, though the synopsis rightly suggests that it’s the spirit of Petrushka which reappears at the end, like the ghost of Don Juan at the end of Richard Strauss’s tone poem, the track details wrongly translate ‘fantôme’ as ‘Petrushka’s double’.
With its attractive price this has a lot going for it: at once my Recording of the Month and Bargain of the Month. This seems to be the first issue on the Monte Carlo label and I look forward to more - perhaps they even have more Kreizberg up their sleeve. There is, however, an attractive alternative or, rather, a pair of alternatives in the form of two EMI Classics 2-CD sets. Symphonies and Concertos (9072512 - see review) includes Neville Marriner’s Pulcinella, while the Rite of Spring, Petrushka and Firebird with Simon Rattle at the helm come on 9677112, coupled with Apollo - see review. Those two albums could be yours for about the same price as the OPMC 3-CD set or even a little less; either would be an excellent purchase, despite minor reservations about Rattle’s Rite, so I’ll sit back and leave you to decide. To buy both would hardly count as ridiculous extravagance. You may even wish to throw in Stravinsky’s own superb mid-price recordings of Firebird and Rite on Sony SMK89875 and the whole lot would cost only the modern equivalent of the Stravinsky recording on a full-price LP c.1960.
Masterwork Index: Rite of Spring ~ The Firebird ~ Petrushka ~ Pulcinella
Individually these performances are at or near the top of the pile; collectively this is an irresistible offering.