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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Pulcinella Suite (1924 rev.1949) [21:50]
Apollon Musagète (1928 rev.1947) [29:50]
Concerto in D for string orchestra (1946) [12:28]
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Masaaki Suzuki
rec. April 2015, Tapiola Concert Hall, Finland
Reviewed in surround
BIS BIS-2211 SACD [64:55]

Pulcinella Suite [23:15]
Apollon Musagète [29:44]
Concerto in D for string orchestra [12:37]
Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne/Joshua Weilerstein
rec. 16-20 September 2015, location not provided
Reviewed in surround

Snap! It’s not uncommon for Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite and Apollon musagète to be paired, but now we have the neo-classical trifecta with the Concerto in D, in identical ordering, on almost simultaneous releases, and both in hybrid SACD format. The other oddity perhaps in today’s cost-constrained classical CD market is the very appearance of two new studio recordings of these works.

Regrettably, ‘snap’ also applies to what’s largely missing from both of these recordings. I note my MWI colleague Dave Billinge’s summation of “decent performances all lacking sparkle” in his recent review of the BIS. He also mentions the ready-made recording venue for the Tapiola Sinfonietta, lamenting an apparent shortage of such facilities in England. However, what Finland may be without, and indeed England anymore, is a Kingsway Hall where someone like Kenneth Wilkinson can work his craft. ‘Wilkie’ engineered Pulcinella and Apollo on Argo for the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in 1967, and revisiting these recordings illuminates the importance of clarity and impact in presenting Stravinky’s music (as also do the composer’s own, but less ingratiating, recordings). The Vivo movement from Pulcinella, as I recall, was a staple in hi-fi demonstration rooms at the time. I’m mindful from my own experience in sound engineering how an acoustic setting can mislead one’s perception of a performance, particularly taking the ‘edge’ or ‘weight’ off an otherwise vital delivery. Even though Pulcinella and Apollo represent some of Stravinsky’s most amiable and approachable music, both works still have a sharp dynamism that can be stifled by the recording environment. The BIS recording in particular presents an orchestral perspective that would be fine, say, for an English pastoral work, but that kind of acoustic garb doesn’t necessarily suit Stravinsky, especially for the Pulcinella Suite, where the blend of instrumental colours and, conversely, their differentiation are so essential.

The MDG perspective is closer and drier, which works better for Pulcinella, but the playing of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra under Joshua Weilerstein sounds a little less energised, their Finnish counterparts imparting a greater sense of attack and ‘digging in’. While both groups deliver a refined Apollo, with excellent solos I presume from their section principals, my observation about relative intensity is exemplified in the Variation d’Apollon, where the Tapiola Sinfonietta’s weight of tone is truly impressive. Still, these together are no more than “decent performances”, and given the stiff competition in the catalogue for each ballet, new recordings should offer something special, and I’m afraid neither of these does.

Both ensembles hit the ground running for the Concerto in D, and here I found the litheness of the Lausanne group better suited to the work’s chimerical nature. While the Finns despatch it more swiftly, their tonal bloom now tends to gravitas, a sign perhaps that Masaaki Suzuki is still in Bachian mode after his illustrious Cantata cycle. Neither performance will disappoint, though, each making a potent case for this work’s ingenuity of symmetrical form. It’s not the main attraction of these programmes, however, as buyers will primarily be drawn by the ballets.

I listened to both recordings in surround sound and while each is very fine and naturally balanced, I found the MDG worked better for the programme material. With an already generous level of stereo hall ambience in the BIS, the addition of rear ambience further softens the Stravinskian edge, particularly in Pulcinella. I can imagine some, though, preferring the richness of the BIS sound and its realistic sense of a large acoustic space.

Looking across both releases, then, perhaps a zero sum game. I can understand Masaaki Suzuki, after his Bach odyssey, wanting to stamp his authority on other genres and periods. To an extent he has done it with this Stravinsky offering, but increasingly ‘the best is the enemy of the good’ in such a crowded field. The same could be said of Joshua Weilerstein’s Lausanne performance, which is also highly commendable but not outstanding. The differentiating factor for both discs is their SACD sound, but possibly by cruel fate, they are in turn competing directly with each other in a very small niche.

Des Hutchinson

Previous review (BIS): Dave Billinge



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