Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Baiser de la Fée (1928, rev. 1950) [43:51]
Perséphone (1933-1934) [48:03]
Pulcinella (1920) [38:54]
Symphony in Three Movements (1942-1945) [21:29]
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra/David Atherton (Baiser)
London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir/Kent Nagano (Persephone)
Anne Fournet (speaker), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor) Jennifer Smith (soprano), John Fryatt (tenor), Malcolm King (bass) Northern Sinfonia/Sir Simon Rattle (Pulcinella)
Elaine Donohoe (piano), Robert Johnston (harp) City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle (Symphony)
rec. 31 October, 8 November 1994, Tsuen Wan Town Hall, Hong Kong (Baiser);
3-4 May 1991, Blackheath Concert Hall, London (Persephone); 28-29 March 1977, 3-4 January 1978, Henry Wood Hall, Newcastle upon Tyne (Pulcinella); 3-4 October 1986, Arts Centre, University of Warwick (Symphony). ADD/DDD
EMI CLASSICS 9498442 [75:54 +76:52]
As ballet compilations go this looks more promising than most; two recordings from the up-and-coming Simon Rattle, one from the admirable David Atherton and one from the underrated Kent Nagano. Some of these are pre-digital recordings, but my main concern is that too many EMI reissues from the 1970s and 1980s have not been very sympathetically re-mastered; the classic Previn Nutcracker - review - is a case in point. Still, it makes perfectly good sense to group these neo-classical ballets in such an enticing, well-priced package. And yes, the Symphony in Three Movements isn’t a ballet, but it was choreographed by George Balanchine in 1972.
It’s good to hear Atherton conducting, as those who remember his London Sinfonietta LPs for DG will surely attest. Here he leads the versatile and accomplished Hong Kong Philharmonic, where he was Music Director from 1989 to 2000. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ice Queen, Stravinsky’s one-act ballet Le Baiser de la Fée (The Fairy’s Kiss) has a delicacy and charm one doesn’t always hear in Stravinsky’s music of the period. The chamber-like scoring has seldom seemed so lucid, the Hong Kong strings poised, the winds full of character. The conductor’s experience in the theatre really pays off, with sensible, eminently danceable speeds and well-judged rhythms.
If, like me, you find neo-classical Stravinsky a tad austere this glowing performance will come as a pleasant surprise. Factor in alert, sensitive playing and fine, detailed sound - no audible nasties here - and this set has got off to the best possible start. As for the later Perséphone - awkwardly split between discs - poise and point are supplanted by music of sinew and snap. A mélodrame for dancers, orchestra, chorus, tenor and speaker, it’s a strange hybrid with a compelling narrative. Sadly, sung and spoken texts aren’t provided, but Anne Fournet is a smoky-toned speaker, Anthony Rolfe Johnson a somewhat strained and distant Eumolphe.
Balances are generally fine though, the chorus well placed and recorded. The LPO are in commanding form too, Stravinsky’s astringent harmonies and arresting rhythms handled with flair. Arguably, Nagano’s reading is more about the letter of the score than its spirit, but really that’s a very minor point when the music moves along as well as it does. The break comes between the second and third parts - ‘Persephone in the Underworld’ and ‘The Rebirth of Persephone’ - the gaunt choral and orchestral climaxes of the latter thrillingly caught. Extreme treble is a little fierce, but not distractingly so; indeed, there’s very little to criticise here, the music emerging with a judicious blend of detail and warmth. Not as ear-pricking a piece as The Fairy’s Kiss perhaps, but it’s engaging nonetheless.
The remaining works are conducted by the young Rattle, whose 1980 recording of the Mahler 10 must be one of the finest things he’s ever done. Regrettably, I find his more recent performances much too mannered, but I’ll happily yield to those who disagree. That said, this Pulcinella opens with an overture of pleasing symmetry and directness. The Northern Sinfonia, warmly recorded, aren’t as polished as the other bands here - the tuttis and some of the solos are a little rough - but they do acquit themselves well. As for soloists John Fryatt, Jennifer Smith and James King they adopt a suitably florid vocal style that amply underscores Stravinsky’s debt to Pergolesi.
This Pulcinella does have its longueurs though; the analogue recording is a tad airless and Rattle’s tempi aren’t always very grateful. I suppose what I dislike most about this version is the dogged, somewhat literal reading, where every detail is carefully unearthed, scrutinised and put back; inevitably, overall momentum and the music’s ebb and flow must be compromised. It’s a problem that afflicts his later performances too, but I accept it will irritate some listeners more than others. In any event there are a number of fine Pulcinellas in the catalogue, not least Claudio Abbado’s top-notch twofer from DG, available at under a fiver if you shop around.
Rattle’s Symphony in Three Movements dates from his halcyon days in Birmingham and, as with his Pulcinella, the music gets off to a promising start. The jazzy rhythms of the first movement are nicely articulated, the bass drum impressive. As for the piano it’s convincingly balanced - not always a given in this work - and the CBSO play with plenty of verve and commitment. So why is this performance so pedestrian? I suspect it’s the conductor’s archaeological tendencies at work once more. Frankly, this is not a performance I’d want to revisit, in spite of the band’s fine playing and a spectacular recording.
At the risk of damning with faint praise I’d say this collection is worth buying for the Atherton and, to a lesser extent, the Nagano, both of which I’m happy to add to my collection. I daresay Rattle fans - and there are many - won’t forgive me for criticising his contributions here; truth is, there are more persuasive versions of both works in the catalogue - and just as well recorded to boot.
Masterwork Index: Pulcinella -- Le Baiser de la Fée
Worth buying for the Atherton and, to a lesser extent, the Nagano.