Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Sacre du Printemps
(1913) [38:21]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Les Biches
* (1924) [32:45]
BBC National Chorus of Wales*
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thierry Fischer
rec. live, 19 June 2009, St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. DDD
Thierry Fischer and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales have already released recordings on the Signum Classics labels of Firebird (SIGCD165) and Petrushka (SIGCD195). I’ve not heard those discs but if they’re up to the same standard as this, the final instalment of Stravinsky’s ‘Diaghilev troika’, they will be pretty good.
The BBC NOW gives a very good account of itself inLe Sacre. The playing is precise - as is emphasised by a very good and clear recording. For example, the rhythms are crisp in ‘Dances of the Young Girls’ and ‘Dance of the Earth’ is tremendously incisive. There’s great power in ‘Spring Rounds’ while the brutal, propulsive rhythms of ‘Glorification of the Chosen One’ generate considerable excitement. The ‘Sacrificial Dance: The Chosen One’ is suitably explosive.
There’s a good deal of subtlety to admire in this performance also. The subdued and fascinating textures of the Introduction to Part II are expertly balanced by Thierry Fischer and his players and they’re just as successful in ‘Mystic Circles of the Young Girls’ which follows. This is, in fact, a successful all-round performance of Le Sacre and most certainly not one that’s merely fuelled on testosterone. The colour, bite, drama and savagery of Stravinsky’s ground-breaking score are all very well realised and so is the fantasy. It must be a huge challenge adequately to convey the sound of this complex and often tumultuous score, which requires a vast orchestra. It must be still more challenging to convey the myriad detail of the often-teeming orchestration without recourse to egregious spotlighting of individual instruments or sections. It seems to me that engineer Mike Hatch has done an excellent job in presenting a convincing and musically satisfying representation of the performance.
On the face of it Les Biches and Le Sacre are poles apart and it may seem incongruous to pair them on a CD, let alone in concert as Thierry Fischer did in June 2009, when I suspect the two works were heard in the reverse order to that on this disc. Actually, there are some common threads. The most obvious is that both ballets were composed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. In his booklet note, entitled ‘The Rites of Women’ Daniel Jaffé suggests another one, namely that “both focus on the role of women in the rituals of sex and sexual attraction.” You may or may not agree with that thesis but the beauty of a CD is that you don’t have to listen to both works in conjunction. What I can assure collectors, however, is that another common thread - and, for our purposes perhaps the most important one - is that Fischer and his musicians turn in very good performances of both works.
An important plus for this disc is that Fischer plays the full ballet score of nine movements rather than the five-movement orchestral suite that Poulenc subsequently fashioned and which is more usually heard in the concert hall and on disc. This explains the involvement of the BBC National Chorus of Wales for three of the movements feature a choir - male voices only are heard in the often lusty third section while the fifth and eighth movements call for SATB chorus. To be honest, I don’t think these choral movements are the strongest music in the ballet - turn to the more familiar numbers for that - but it’s both valuable and interesting to hear the full score and the BBC National Chorus of Wales makes a fine contribution. We are told in the notes that Poulenc set “some 17th-century texts”. I don’t know what these were and Signum provide neither texts nor translations. My suspicion, however, is that this is one of those occasions where the text is relatively unimportant and, possibly, inconsequential.
The familiar orchestral movements contain some delicious music and the present performance is a spirited one. The sophisticated ‘Rondeau’ is done well and the infectiously gay sections of the ‘Rag-Mazurka’ are invigoratingly delivered. The ‘Andantino’ is delightful while the vivacious ‘Final’ has plenty of bounce and life. Poulenc’s score is a wonderful example of French ’chic’; it may not be the deepest thing that came from his pen but it certainly falls into the ‘naughty but nice’ category. I thoroughly enjoyed this performance.
There is applause at the end of each work - vociferous in the case of the Stravinsky - but otherwise I was not aware of any distracting audience noise.
This disc demonstrates imaginative programme planning. The BBC orchestra is on fine form under the baton of a conductor who is, seemingly, thoroughly at home in both of these very different scores. All in all, this disc is an attractive proposition.
John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Le Sacre du Printemps
Two very different Diaghilev ballets in excellent performances.