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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Petrushka (1911/1945?) [34:35]
Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
The Miraculous Mandarin (1918) [30:19]
London Symphony Orchestra/Kent Nagano
rec. Watford Colosseum, February and April 1997
WARNER APEX 2564 673174 [64:54]

Since Kent Nagano made his name as a specialist in twentieth-century music, it's no surprise that he serves up an expert Petrushka. Detail is almost all precisely in place - the ritard into the Dance of the Coachmen sounds oddly uncertain - and the score's metrical complexities are well under control.
Nagano also brings a lot of character to a score that virtuoso orchestras can too easily just toss off. He encourages liquid, flexible phrasing from the LSO's fine woodwind soloists: the unaccompanied flute phrases in the opening scene are inflected nicely. He also injects a real, trenchant grimness into the Blackamoor scene. The quicker passages - notably the Valse, faster and lighter than most - go with a real buoyancy and lift. After all this, Nagano's seemingly matter-of-fact treatment of the concluding pizzicatos evokes a striking emotional emptiness.
Nagano's Miraculous Mandarin shares some of the Petrushka's virtues. At the start, a lithe buoyancy informs the music, transcending its pounding "Age of Steel" aspect. The quieter bits are sensitively phrased, again, by the principal woodwinds. However, about five minutes in, the performance loses its sense of direction. Even the lively tuttis later on churn aimlessly. The piece doesn't conclude so much as runs out of steam. Nor does Nagano bring out the score's wealth of orchestral colours as he did in Petrushka.
The recorded sound comes up with a nice depth in Petrushka, but it, too, seems less impressive in the Mandarin. Shame on Warner Classics, however, for its skimpy leaflet. There are no annotations beyond the track-listing. The version of Petrushka used is not identified, and my ear isn't sufficiently tuned to know the difference between the original and revised scores. The Bartók is, in fact, the complete ballet, including the prescribed wordless chorus, though no chorus is billed. Generous tracking in both works will help students locate specific spots, but twenty-three tracks for the Bartók - most of which are less than two minutes long - was perhaps overdoing it, and may prove an annoyance for mp3 listeners.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Previous review (earlier release): Terry Barfoot

Masterwork Index: Petrushka