Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird (1919 Suite) [19:11]
The Rite of Spring [31:56]
Minneapolis Symphony/Antal Doráti
rec. 1952 (Firebird), 1953 (Rite), Northrop Auditorium, Minneapolis

These Stravinsky recordings have been issued, along with others, by The Antal Doráti Centenary Society. Among the many important appointments held by Doráti (1906-1988) during his long career one which is very fully documented through recordings is his relationship with the Minneapolis Symphony, of which he was principal conductor between 1949 and 1960. He made a large number of recordings for the Mercury label with the orchestra and these two recordings were among them. He later went on to record the complete Firebird ballet for Mercury with the LSO in 1959, a very famous recording (review), and he again recorded both ballets with the Detroit Symphony much later in his career.

These present recordings are over sixty years old but, while they show their age at times both still sound remarkably good. I’m not sure what source material has been used but the transfers seem to have been accomplished very successfully.

Doráti’s account of the Firebird Suite is impressive. There’s suspense in the Introduction and graceful playing in the ‘Round Dance of the Princesses’. The conductor drives ‘Kastchei’s Infernal Dance’ on excitingly and the bright sound of the Minneapolis brass adds to the sense of urgency. There’s a nice, poetic account of the Berceuse but when the full orchestra enters (1:15) the effect is slightly odd: the orchestra sounds to be somewhat distant and in the background while the various solo instruments – the cello especially – have been and remain in the foreground. However, the delicacy of the solo playing is good to hear. The performance of the Finale is impressive though it’s in the louder stretches of this movement that the recording starts to show its age a little.

It’s mildly disappointing that Le Sacre is presented in just two tracks but the performance itself is a good one. After the Introduction the interpretation starts to build a head of steam in the ‘Augurs of Spring’ section where Doráti’s pacing is excitingly brisk. As Part I unfolds the music-making is full of drive and primitive energy. ‘Spring Rounds’ builds in brazen power, the potency of the playing accentuated by the recorded sound, and the ‘Dance of the Earth’ is savage and frenetic.

Doráti imbues the Introduction to Part II with appropriate suspense. A little later the ‘Glorification of the Chosen One’ is driven and exciting; here the barbarity and the primitive nature of the music really comes through and the contribution of the timpani is particularly dynamic. The ‘Ritual of the Ancestors’ is very potent with a degree of wildness to it that is highly appropriate. There’s a real adrenalin rush to Doráti’s rendition of the ‘Sacrificial Dance’, the music impelled forward by thrillingly dynamic timpani playing.

These are very good performances. In Le Sacre one has the sense that the Minneapolis Symphony, though a very good ensemble, was not quite of the first rank in the early 1950s. It seemed to me that the orchestra was playing up to its limits. However, I don’t make that point to belittle the orchestral playing: on the contrary, Le Sacre is a hugely demanding score and I rather like to hear performances in which one has a sense of the orchestra being challenged by the piece – but rising to the challenge. Over the last 60 years orchestral standards have risen exponentially and there’s a danger of Le Sacre becoming a repertoire piece performed with slick virtuosity. That’s not the case here: Doráti and the Minneapolis Symphony confront the score, work jolly hard to master its myriad difficulties and produce exciting results.

As I indicated earlier, these performances sound well in this CD incarnation. The performances are good and admirers of Antal Doráti should seize the opportunity to hear what I believe to be his first recordings of these two great Stravinsky scores.

John Quinn