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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird (1919) [21:46]
The Rite of Spring (1913) [33:05]
Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse/Tugan Sokhiev
rec. September 2011, La Halle Aux Grains, Toulouse, France
NAÏVE V5360 [54:57]

These two kaleidoscopic ballet scores could just as easily serve as concertos for orchestra, so intense are the demands placed, by turns, on each section of the orchestra. As such, they serve as a merited showcase for the Toulouse Capitole, who seem to have moved into a new phase under their music director, Tugan Sokhiev.
 
Everything about this Firebird radiates colour, from the sinister depths of the basses and trombones at the opening, through to the glacial harmonics of the upper violins and shimmering colour of the flutes in the Firebird’s theme. The oboe that introduces the Princesses’ Round is delectably sweet, as are the other soloists that gently follow it. The ensuing wash of string sound manages to combine French lyricism with Russian fire. Almost every section has great fun showing off in the Infernal Dance, and the Berceuse is led by some outstanding bassoon and oboe solos.
 
Rhythmically, Sokhiev has the measure of these scores. He paces the rhythm of the most difficult elements, such as the Firebird’s Dance or the Infernal Dance, with consummate skill. Just as telling is the way he shapes the unfolding structure of each ballet, with an eye on the next climax but without being in too great a hurry to get there. The slow burn of the end of The Firebird is good evidence of this, and that’s also offset by his inclusion of some rather cheeky brass slurs that I’d never heard before. He is even better in The Rite. There is a razor-sharp bite to the Augurs that really took me by surprise, and the overall darkness of his vision inspires the orchestra to match him in their playing. I’d be here all day if I listed them all, so let a few examples suffice, such as the rawness of the brass in the Dance of the Adolescents - and repeatedly elsewhere, too. There’s also the exceptionally - almost daringly - warm string sound of the Ritual of Abduction, the lightning-quick intensity of the Dance of the Earth, or the way that the quiet opening of the Ritual Action of the Ancestors sounds like an angry beast pawing the ground, before the angry scything of the Sacrificial Dance leads to the thrillingly explosive conclusion.
 
It helps, too, that Naïve have captured all this in their very best sound, full of clarity and brightness so that everything is fully audible. Climaxes - and there are a lot of them - are right at the front of the speakers but with never a hint of distortion. Just as much prominence is given to the delicate moments as to the barnstorming ones. In short, this disc is one to live with. Rattle’s pair of discs with the CBSO is still my favourite collection of Stravinsky ballets, but this disc made a big impression on me, and it’s definitely one I’ll be returning to.
 
The individual tracking for each ballet is generous, with the titles given in the CD booklet, and the accompanying essay gives some background to Stravinsky’s relationship with the Ballets Russes. It’s only a shame that it’s at full price but comes in at less than an hour’s duration.
 
Simon Thompson

Previous reviews (with DVD as V5192): John Quinn ~~ Michael Cookson

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