Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
L'Oiseau de feu (The Firebird)
Orchestral version (1910) [47.51]
Version for piano four hands (arr. Dennis Russell Davies) (1901) [50.22]
Maki Amerada and Dennis Russell Davies (piano)
Sinfonieorchester Basel/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. 22-25 August 2014 Stadtcasino, Basel, Switzerland (orchestral); 12-14 August 2015 Musiktheater in Linz, Austria (piano)
SOLO MUSICA SOB10 [2 CDs: 47.51 + 50.22]
Pétrouchka (Petrushka)
Orchestral version (original 1911 version) [35.40]
Version for piano four hands [38.50]
Maki Amerada and Dennis Russell Davies (piano)
Sinfonieorchester Basel/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. 25-27 August 2015 Stadtcasino, Basel, Switzerland (orchestral); 22-24 April 2016 Musiktheater in Linz, Austria (piano)

Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Orchestral version (1913) [36.02]
Version for piano four hands (1913) [37.00]3
Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies (piano)
Sinfonieorchester Basel/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. 20-30 October 2013 Stadtcasino, Basel, Switzerland (orchestral); 25-26 October 2013 Musiktheater in Linz, Austria (piano)

This series of Stravinsky’s three ‘Russian ballets’ from the Sinfonieorchester Basel conducted by music director Dennis Russell Davies has been released on separate albums on Solo Musica over the last couple of years. (Incidentally the American conductor/pianist is due to step down as the orchestra’s music director after the 2016/17 season). Included with each album of the orchestral works is the arrangement for piano four hands played by Davies partnering his wife Maki Namekawa.
Sergei Diaghilev founder of the Ballets Russes heard Stravinsky’s music in 1909 at a Siloti concert at St. Petersburg and commissioned a ballet from the young composer. The 1910 première of Stravinsky’s L'Oiseau de feu (Firebird) was given at the Ballets Russes in Paris. The dramatic ballet in one act and two tableaux was a resounding success making the composer famous overnight. Based on Russian folk tales, L'Oiseau de feu is memorable for marking a new dawn in the evolution of symphonic ballet. An audience favourite, the ballet has become a fixture on concert hall programmes worldwide. Unlike Le Sacre du printemps and Pétrouchka Stravinsky left no version for piano four hands. For this production Dennis Russell Davies has prepared a piano four hands version using Stravinsky’s own arrangement for solo piano in conjunction with the orchestral score.

Right from the ominously stirring bars of the opening of the first tableau Davies’ assured conducting draws the listener right in. The playing of the Sinfonieorchester Basle generates an abundance of drama, producing a glorious wash of warm sound with an undertow of foreboding never far away. Danse de l'Oiseau de feu is spiritedly played, conveying an uplifting feel with telling woodwind contributions. In the Supplications de l'Oiseau de feu there is a marked tenderness to the splendid and expressive playing. The striking playing of the famous Ronde des Princesses is enjoyable, with its wonderfully memorable song-like melody. Again the Basle woodwind, especially the oboe, make the best of the ample opportunity to shine. Edge of the seat excitement abounds in Danse infernale followed by the haunting character of the popular Berceuse. With Profondes ténèbres the assured Davies creates an atmosphere of darkness and mystery. In the second tableau the unforgettable horn solo in the final movement, which announces the main melody is gradually taken up by the full might of the orchestra creating a stunning climax.

Of the recordings of the complete L'Oiseau de feu my first choice is still the dramatic 1959 account by Antal Dorati conducting the London Symphony Orchestra recorded at Watford Town Hall, London. Dorati conducts scintillatingly fresh performances creating wonderful drama in vividly clear sound, if a touch dry, on Mercury Living Presence. Highly desirable too is Bernard Haitink with the Berliner Philharmoniker from 1989 at the Philharmonie, Berlin on Philips. Both beautiful and powerful, Haitink gives an intensely exhilarating performance.
Following the remarkable success of L'Oiseau de feu at the Ballets Russes, the next collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky was in 1911 with Pétrouchka (Petrushka) a ballet burlesque in four tableaux. Pétrouchka was premièred in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet in June 1911 under conductor Pierre Monteux. The scenario depicts the life of the Russian lower classes, through the loves and envies of three puppets: Petrushka (a sort of Russian version of Mr. Punch), the ballerina Columbine, and the Moor who is brought to life at a Shrovetide Fair in St Petersburg by the Magician. Stravinsky’s 1947 version scored for a smaller orchestra is often performed but here Dennis Russell Davies conducts the original 1911 version for large orchestra.

My highlights are, from tableau the Danse Russe, which is delightfully evocative and from tableau three the Valse of the Moor and the Ballerina, which is positively kaleidoscopic. One feels a remarkable commitment from the players as Davies, with real style, generates excitement and rhythmic punch. Davies presides over a splendid performance from his Basle players; nevertheless, on balance I prefer the captivating 1998 Philharmonie, Berlin account by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Bernard Haitink who also uses the original 1911 score.
Damned by critics, the notorious 1913 première of Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris gave worldwide attention to the ballet which is now one of the most admired 20th century scores in the repertory. Under Davies the Basle orchestra play Le Sacre du printemps with deep concentration, skill and brilliance, making an impressively unified sound. Davies eschews a cautious approach with playing that tests dynamic extremes with passion and biting attack. This performance reminds me of the qualities of Sir Simon Rattle’s live 2012 account with the Berliner Philharmoniker on EMI. Davies certainly competes with Rattle in terms of the shattering atmosphere of menace and violence generated. For example the heavy, unnerving sense of anger and aggression in Rondes printanières that the Berliners create is closely matched by the Basle orchestra who come close to venting the full weight of the orchestra’s brutal power. The Basle players perform quite beautifully, especially in the dreamy passage in Cortège du sage: Le Sage that provides a short respite from the tension. In Danse de la terre and Danse sacral Davies and his players powerfully unleash an unrelenting barbaric outburst of toxic aggression.

Sir Simon Rattle is a renowned Stravinsky conductor and I relish his live 2012 account of Le Sacre du printemps (1947 revision) with the Berliner Philharmoniker on EMI Classics. Rattle’s stunning performance, with excellent sonics, recorded live at the Philharmonie, Berlin has become a clear first choice. Incidentally two years earlier in 2010 Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker released a 2003 recording of Le Sacre du printemps that was contained on the soundtrack album to the 2009 Jan Kounen film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky on Naïve. I made the Rattle/Naïve release one of my Musicweb-International Records of the Year but Rattle’s later 2012 account is even more electrifying.

Playing Stravinsky’s three Russian ballets in the versions for piano four hands, Davies and Maki Namekawa demonstrate real empathy with the composer’s colourfully rhythmic sound world. Throughout the duo bring out ample freshness with playing that is crisp and well focused with only occasional strains on overall unity. To be able to compare the orchestral and piano four hand versions of the ballet scores is an enlightening opportunity.

Stravinsky’s orchestral scores were recorded at Stadtcasino, Basel and the piano four hand versions at Musiktheater in Linz. For Solo Musica the sound engineers have excelled providing clear well balanced sound. Helpful booklet notes for each album written by different authors serve to enhance the excellent presentation.

Michael Cookson

Previous review (Rite): Steve Arloff

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