Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird (L'Oiseau de feu) complete ballet (1909/10) [44:29]
Scherzo fantastique (1908) [12:24]
WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne/Jukka-Pekka Saraste
rec. live, 17-18 September 2010 (L'Oiseau de feu), 6, 10 December 2010 (Scherzo fantastique), Philharmonie, Cologne, Germany

These excellent performances were recorded live in collaboration with West German Broadcasting, Cologne.
Stravinsky created a cyclonic power by writing a series of masterworks for the ballet which included The Firebird; The Rite of Spring and Petrushka. In the early nineteen hundreds Stravinsky’s highly individual music descended on the world with shattering impact. Based on Russian folk tales The Firebird is memorable. It marks a new dawn in the evolution of symphonic ballet. It was clearly the most important ballet score since Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty (1879)and The Nutcracker (1892). Composed in 1909/10 The Firebird was written in collaboration with the choreographer Michel Fokine for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. The dramatic one act ballet premièred at Paris in 1910 with Gabriel Pierné conducting. It was a resounding success and made the composer famous overnight. Stravinsky prepared three concert/ballet suites. They date from 1910, 1919 and 1945. Of the three the 1945 suite retains more of the original music.
Immediately I noticed the brilliant playing of the Cologne orchestra. It never feels as if Saraste is pushing the pace. The line of the music feels so natural. I sensed that Saraste was being a touch cautious in his approach, with the interpretation requiring greater extreme of dynamics, yet the end product has an abundance of excitement, drama and when appropriate; high volume. The Dance of the Firebird is vivaciously played with good humour and exceptional woodwind contributions. In the Supplication of the Firebird the excellent playing contains a remarkable tenderness that contrasts markedly with the abundance of expressive power. I was struck by the beautiful playing in the famous Round Dance with its wonderfully memorable song-like melody. Here the woodwind, especially the oboe, are given ample opportunity to shine. Several of the movements contain music that is thrillingly played and creates considerable drama. Haunting and moving the popular Berceuse is quite stunningly performed and the movement Profound Darkness creates a convincingly dark and shadowy atmosphere. In the final movement the haunting horn solo that announces the main melody is gradually taken up by the full might of the orchestra to create an imposing climax that made the hairs rise on the back of my neck. 

Stravinsky’s Firebird has been a popular choice by conductors in the recording studio and there are numerous versions in the catalogue. I have been reappraising the recordings of The Firebird in my collection of both the complete ballet and ballet suites and I have whittled down the contenders to four main recommendations. There is the dramatic account of the complete Firebird ballet from Antal Dorati conducting the London Symphony Orchestra from 1959 at Watford Town Hall, London. Here Dorati conducts scintillatingly fresh performances creating wonderful drama together with vividly clear sound, if a touch dry, on Mercury Living Presence 432 012-2. Highly desirable is Bernard Haitink with the Berlin Philharmonic playing the complete Firebird ballet from 1989 at the Berlin Philharmonie on Philips 426 317-2. I found Haitink’s exciting account both beautiful and powerful; giving an intensely exhilarating performance. I have greatly enjoyed the stirring and most attractively played live account of 1919 Firebird suite from Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra recorded in 2004 at the Munich Philharmonie on Sony 82876703262001. Jansons certainly knows this score inside out and I was at the Berlin Philharmonie at the musikfest berlin 2010 when he conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra in a magnificent performance of the 1945 Firebird suite. I also admire the account of the 1910 Firebird suite from Pierre Boulez and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Recorded at Walthamstow Town Hall, London in 1967 Boulez and his orchestra are in splendid form providing vital performances of real assurance on Sony Classical SK 94736.
Stravinsky’s orchestral fantasy Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3 was composed in 1908 the same year as his orchestral showpiece Fireworks, Op.4; during Stravinsky’s final days as a student to Rimsky-Korsakov in Russia. Stravinsky owed a debt of gratitude to his Scherzo fantastique as it was a performance in 1909 that brought him to the attention of Diaghilev and this in turn led to the life-changing Firebird commission. Saraste and the WDR orchestra give a splendid live performance. They respond to the vivid orchestral colouring of the score with delightful enthusiasm. For those looking for an alternative account of the Scherzo fantastique I admire the impressively played and beautifully recorded performance from the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez from 1994 at the Cleveland Masonic Auditorium.
Stravinsky’s The Firebird and Scherzo fantastique are here given highly impressive performances that rank with the finest accounts around. Recorded at live concerts that were broadcast on the radio the engineers provide, crystal clear and well balanced sound. The Cologne audience is extremely well behaved with virtually no extraneous noise. In the cool acoustic only a slight lack of atmosphere prevented this recording from attaining demonstration quality.  

Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: The Firebird
Highly impressive performances that rank with the finest accounts around.