Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
L’Oiseau de feu (1910) [47:03]
Orchestrations and arrangements:
Tchaikovsky: Pas De-Deux [5:09]
Sibelius: Canzonetta, Op. 62a [3:24]
Chopin: Nocturne in A flat major, Op. 32 No. 1 [7:31]
Chopin: Grande Valse Brillante, Op. 18 [6:07]
Stravinsky: Greeting Prelude (1955) [0:51]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. October 2009 (Tchaikovsky, Chopin Valse) and June 2010, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway.
BIS BIS-SACD-1874 [71:40]

Stunned by the Bergen Philharmonic/Andrew Litton Petroushka and Rite of Spring disc (see review), I leapt at the chance to review their L’Oiseau de feu. The point can be made with every new review of every new release of this work, but there are indeed so many versions available that someone attempting to make a blind choice will be bewildered, and anyone with a decent recording or two already will wonder why the labels keep churning them out.
Robert Craft’s recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra, now available on the Naxos label (see review) has become something of a reference of mine, and indeed preferable in many ways to Boulez on Deutsche Grammophon (see review). Craft can achieve fever-pitch excitement from his players, and is intensely alert to Stravinsky’s orchestral colours and nuances. If you want a recording where the emotional turmoil is closest to the surface then you won’t go wrong with Craft.
It’s easy to generalise and there are some particular points to be made about Litton’s recording, but just about every comment which can be made about this BIS release can also be said of the Naxos disc. As you would imagine, the massed and extended forces of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in Stravinsky’s full-score original version of this work sound wonderful, and if you are looking for ‘demonstration quality’ in your CDs then this is very much one to have as a reference. The bass drum is truly spectacular, the SACD spread of sound is more than just involving, and you can close your eyes and feel the experience from scalp to toes through a good system. Litton works his orchestra with phenomenal dexterity, graduating dynamics with precision, balancing to create atmosphere and tease the imagination. All of the instrumental solos are superb. Little moments of transition create a world of magic, such as the two chords at 1:50 into Le jardin enchanté with their halo of celesta sound, or the strange bell-like tones under the opening of Carillon féerique. The sur la scène trumpets of ‘Daybreak’ which get such a high billing in the blurb for Craft’s recording have greater impact in this Bergen version, and the left-right antiphonal effect is nicely done, though is a momentary and fleeting event and nothing to get too excited about. This is however one of the things which does work better in surround-sound. These trumpets also appear in the final pages of the score – those sustained notes ringing out from 2:08, and mixed somewhere in the final cadence from 3:02. The softer moments of the score put you under a deep spell, and the late-romantic inflections of the Supplications de l’oiseau and melodic lament of the Berceuse are beautifully done, contrasting hotly with the precipitous edge-of-the-seat excitement of the Danse infernale with its woofer-walloping bass drum. The arrival of the final Allégresse générale is truly cathartic.
There’s a fascinating clutch of extras to make up the rest of the programme. How does Stravinsky make Tchaikovsky sound like Stravinsky? Forced by circumstances to reduce the full orchestra to ten winds, piano, timpani and strings, there is no mistaking the chugging string chords under the solos of the of the first Adagio of the Pas-De-Deux, and there subtle are little touches of the old alchemy sprinkled throughout the orchestrations Stravinsky made for Diaghilev’s 1921 Sleeping Beauty. The connection between Sibelius and Stravinsky is made through his gift of an orchestration of the string-orchestra Canzonetta after being awarded the Wihuri Sibelius Prize in 1961. The Chopin orchestrations are beautifully crafted, and though the Nocturne is done with idiomatic sensitivity, the Grand Valse Brillante becomes one of Stravinsky’s circus ‘fun’ pieces, complete with oom-pah brass and banal cymbal crashes. The Greeting Prelude is a ‘Happy Birthday’ to Pierre Monteux which distorts that naff little tune through serial techniques into a dramatic miniature which would fit as the opening to grim news broadcasts.
The choice of an SACD recording of The Firebird has just been made whole lot easier, and I would gladly push this one under the noses of any enquiring clients at the record shop (remember those?). With straight CD versions this still comes out very near the top, though I will be hanging on to my Robert Craft and others such as Stravinsky’s own 1961 recording on Sony. Kent Nagano with the LSO on Virgin Classics is also very good. If I have one slight reservation about Litton’s performance it is that feel of absolute control, which just prevents the feeling of white-hot passion and drama you can sense with Craft. This is a judgment call and purely subjective, and shouldn’t really be a decisive factor. If you want a stunning treat and a Firebird which will last you for the next decade or so, this is the place.

Dominy Clements

A stunning treat, and one which will give lasting pleasure.