Stravinsky made three recordings of these scores. The first
were made in Europe in the 1920s and, as Mark Obert-Thorn correctly
observes in his booklet note, betray both the composer’s lack
of conducting experience and “rather ragged-sounding” orchestras.
The last were those made for the Stravinsky Edition, recorded
in the 1960s when the conductor was advanced in years and required
some assistance from Robert Craft. Despite his physical disabilities
he was still able to inspire an orchestra, as a film made at
that time of him conducting the Rite in London proves.
These recordings feature a pseudonymous orchestra, which is
in reality the New York Philharmonic - at that time under contract
elsewhere - and they are very good. And Stravinsky is in his
This CD includes the very first recording of the 1945 version
of the Firebird suite. This Stravinsky had prepared
in order to safeguard his copyright in the score which had become
a matter of dispute following the Russian Revolution. Stravinsky
himself had a soft spot for this version, not surprisingly since
he earned royalties from it. It was this edition which he recorded
later. It really isn’t a patch on the original score. Stravinsky
reduced the orchestration - largely on practical grounds - and
took the opportunity to tidy up some of the articulation. Much
of his revision was an attempt to turn the score into a more
neo-classical work in accordance with his style at the time.
He made more prominent use of the piano instead of harp and
celesta, for example. Oddly enough this was a style which he
was shortly to abandon in his metamorphosis into a twelve-tone
composer. However this version of the Suite is longer
than the more usually performed 1919 suite. It includes two
extra movements: the Adagio which accompanies the Firebird’s
plea for liberty to her captor the Prince, and the scherzo for
the play of the Princesses with their golden apples. So it’s
a matter of swings and roundabouts. Do you prefer the shorter
suite with the original scoring, or the longer one as revised?
Maybe it’s just best to settle for the full original score.
Mark Obert-Thorn does wonders with the sound here apart from
the lack of weight in the slashing chords which open the Infernal
dance. The result is fairly comparable with Stravinsky’s
stereo remake of fifteen years later. The composer is quite
brisk with his own atmospheric invention at the beginning. The
recording brings out many details that can be lost and Stravinsky
gets a scintillating performance of the Firebird’s dance.
The chords at the very end lack the ideal breadth and grandiosity,
but the fault for this can be laid at Stravinsky’s revision
which substantially alters the articulation given to the players.
The re-mastering has much less opportunity for success when
it comes to the recording of the oddly dismembered suite from
Petrushka. The balances are frequently awry. The blaring
tuba dominates the high wailing clarinet in the episode of the
dancing bear, and the muted trumpets at the end of the second
scene screaming out the puppet’s frustration are largely obscured
by the accompaniment. The sound is much too close in places,
and the strings lack any sense of resonance. It is hard to believe
that only six years lie between these two recordings.
The performance of The rite of spring is very similar
in style to Stravinsky’s remake of twenty years later. Again
it suffers from an over-close and somewhat wayward recording
which does the music no favours. The horn attack on the famous
sforzando chords near the beginning lacks bite. The
chugging strings almost succeed in smoothing out the rhythmic
impetus of the music but Stravinsky adopts a very similar manner
in his later recording, so that is presumably what he wanted.
One can only admire the stamina of the orchestral players in
undertaking recordings of two such demanding - and at that time
relatively unfamiliar - scores in one day. There is a sense
of strain apparent and the balances are poorly judged in a number
of places where modern performances naturally adjust themselves.
The strings master their fast-running passages with proper élan,
but the woodwind are sometimes too far back and the tuba blurts
out its lines in the same way as in Petrushka without
the justification of characterisation. At times, when the orchestra
is building to a climax, there is evidence of some rapid and
panic-stricken lowering of the recording level by the engineers.
In short, although the performance has all the required energy,
the recording does not have sufficient clarity to do justice
to this complex and sometimes magical score. The contemporary
performance by Stokowski in Walt Disney’s Fantasia,
despite its mauling of the score, has much better sound and
If you want to hear Stravinsky’s interpretations of his own
music while the composer was in his prime, this obviously will
be the recording you want. If you need the ailing Stravinsky’s
still vigorous interpretations in better sound, you will want
the version from the Stravinsky Edition on Sony. If you want
to hear the music in its preferable original scoring, there
are plenty of more modern performances to choose from. These
are nevertheless valuable performances, and Mark Orbert-Thorn’s
re-mastering has done the best possible with the sound – and,
in the case of the 1946 recording of the Firebird suite,
a great deal more than that.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Masterwork Index: The
Firebird ~~ Petrushka
~~ The Rite
Historical review pages