Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird: Suite (1945 version) [26.09]
Petrushka: Suite (1911) [16.10]
The Rite of Spring (1913) [31.21]
Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York/Igor Stravinsky
rec. Liederkranz Hall, New York, 4 April 1950 (Petrushka, Rite of Spring) Carnegie Hall, New York, 28 January 1946 (Firebird)
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.112070 [73.40]
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 prime.
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 balance.
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
Stravinsky’s interpretations of his own music while he was in his prime.

Masterwork Index: The Firebird ~~ Petrushka ~~ The Rite of Spring

Naxos Historical review pages