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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird (L’Oiseau de Feu) - Suite (1919) [21:49]
The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) (1913) [33:10]
The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) (1913) [37:00]
Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse/Tugan Sokhiev
rec. September 2011 (CD); 17 September 2011 (DVD), La Halle aux Grains, Toulouse, France
DVD: NTSC; Region Code: 0
NAÏVE V5192 [CD: 54:59 + DVD: 37:00] 

It cannot have escaped the notice of most classical music lovers that Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps)was staged a century ago for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. As expected, to mark the centenary a considerable number of recordings have been newly released or reissued. Amongst them comes this beautifully presented offering. Included with the audio disc is a DVD of a live recording ofThe Rite. We are not told whether the audio disc tracks were recorded live but I suspect that are studio recordings. 

The notorious 1913 première of The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris drew worldwide attention to what is now one of the most admired and popular of all 20th century scores. Far less controversial was the earlier The Firebird which again first saw the light of day in Paris with the Ballets Russes. The dramatic one act ballet was a resounding success and made the composer famous overnight. Based on Russian folk tales The Firebird marks a new dawn in the evolution of symphonic ballet. Last season I attended four performances of the much loved The Firebird and it wouldn’t surprise me if ithas now become Stravinsky’s most performed score. The composer prepared three concert/ballet suites from The Firebird in 1910, 1919 and 1945; here Sokhiev has chosen the one from 1919.
Ossetian conductor Tugan Sokhiev is a rising star for whom I predict great things. Already he is music director of the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse and principal conductor and artistic director of the Deutsches-Symphonie Orchester Berlin. I was certainly highly impressed when I attended a stunning concert of his last September at the Berlin Musikfest 2012 with the Deutsches-Symphonie Orchester Berlin. The programme included Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite and Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 3. Its origins go back as far as the early 19th century and the Théâtre du Capitole’s opera season. It was in 1945 that it acquired its status as a symphony orchestra. Now it is a permanent orchestra based mainly in Toulouse’s Halle aux Grains. The high regard in which it is held is reflected in the 2011 listing in Le Figaro as one of the top three French orchestras.
Under Sokhiev the Toulouse orchestra plays The Rite with great skill and brilliance making an impressively unified sound. I felt that Sokhiev was somewhat cautious in his approach. The playing would have benefited from greater extremes of dynamic; more passion, more vicious attack. It is when listening to the finest recordings such as Sir Simon Rattle’s newly released live 2012 account with the Berliner Philharmoniker on EMI that Sokhiev’s shortfalls become marked. In the Augurs of Spring Sokhiev cannot compete with Rattle whose shattering atmosphere of menace and violence is truly impressive. The heavy, unnerving of anger and aggression in Rattle’s Spring Rounds is unmatched in venting the full weight of brutality. As I expected, the Toulouse musicians play quite beautifully especially in the dreamy respite that is to be found in The Sage. In the Dance of the Earth Rattle unleashes an unrelenting barbaric outburst of toxic aggression and power by comparison with which Sokhiev’s account is a pale reflection.
Sir Simon Rattle is a great Stravinsky conductor and the more that I play his recent live 2012 account of The Rite of Spring (1947 revision) with the Berliner Philharmoniker the more convinced I am by both the stunning performance and the sonics. Recorded live at the Philharmonie this new release has become a clear first choice for me on EMI Classics 7236112 (c/w Symphonies of Wind Instruments; Apollon Musagète). It was only in 2010 that Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker released their 2003 recording of The Rite of Spring as the soundtrack disc to the 2009 Jan Kounen film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky on NaïveV 5223. At the time I made the Naïve release one of my MusicWeb International ‘Records of the Year’. I still greatly admire that excellent performance but this new 2012 live Rattle account is even more electrifying.
In the 1919 suite to The Firebird the Toulouse orchestra under the calm, firm Sokhiev’s direction fare much better. Their playing has an abundance of drama that produces a glorious wash of warm sound. The Dance of the Firebird is spiritedly played and conveys a joyous feel with exceptional woodwind contributions. In the Supplication of the Firebird the admirable playing has a marked tenderness that contrasts markedly with the expressive energy. I enjoy the beautiful playing of the famous Round Dance with its wonderfully memorable song-like melody. Again the Toulouse woodwind, especially the oboe, are given ample opportunity to shine. The haunting and moving Berceuse is performed marvellously and in the Profound Darkness Sokhiev establishes and sustains a dark and shadowy milieu.
The Firebird has been a highly popular choice in concert hall and studio. There are numerous excellent versions in the catalogue. I have been reappraising the recordings in my collection - complete ballet and ballet suites - and have whittled down the tally down to three main contenders that will provide great satisfaction. There is the dramatic account of the complete The Firebird ballet from Antal Dorati conducting the London Symphony Orchestra from 1959 at Watford Town Hall, London. These are scintillatingly fresh performances with a wonderful sense of drama together rendered in vividly clear sound, if a touch dry. You can find that one on Mercury Living Presence 432 012-2. Highly desirable is Bernard Haitink with the Berlin Philharmonic playing the complete The Firebird ballet from 1989 at the Berlin Philharmonie on Philips 426 317-2. I found Haitink’s exciting account both beautiful and powerful; intensely exhilarating stuff. I have greatly enjoyed the stirring and most attractively played live account of 1919Firebird suite from Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra recorded in 2004 at the Munich Philharmonie on Sony 82876703262001. Jansons certainly knows this score inside out. I was at the Philharmonie for the Musikfest Berlin 2010 when he conducted the Concertgebouw in a magnificent performance of the 1945 suite.
Returning to this Naïve release the DVD of the live Rite that opened the orchestra’s 2011/12 season is beautifully shot. Using a rather conventional direction there are no ultra-close shots and surprising no views that I can recall from the front as in the audience. The sound quality from my standard DVD player was splendid. Naïve has clearly invested a lot of time and trouble in the beautifully presented artwork and design of the hard backed booklet.
Michael Cookson

See also review by John Quinn

Masterwork Index: L’Oiseau de Feu ~~ Le Sacre du Printemps