Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Petrushka (1911) [35:41]
Pulcinella: Suite (1922/1949) [22:21]
Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920/1947) [9:08]
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic/Jaap van Zweden
rec. Music Center of Netherlands Radio and Television, Studio MCD 5. Hilversum, June and August 2008
EXTON OVCL-00378 SACD [67:10]

At the start of this disc, I heard an effect I'd not heard in a long time: the music seemed, not merely to begin, but to materialize out of pure silence. This was a supposed advantage of CD over vinyl, but, beyond the first generation of silver discs, the effect became routine, almost indifferently realized most of the time. It's bracing and refreshing to hear it again here, and it bespeaks an unusually pure, ungimmicked sonic frame that sets off the colourful programme to particular advantage.

Thus, the quieter moments of the Pulcinella Suite, especially those involving the excellent solo woodwinds, are pleasingly intimate. The descending phrases in the Serenata are nicely liquid. The oboe is poignant at the start of the Gavotte, and shapely in the 6/8 variation that follows. At the same time, incisive execution of the tuttis produces a full-throated effect. Jaap van Zweden leads a characterful performance, finding a nice rolling impulse in the Scherzino; launching the Tarantella with a cheerful noise, then seamlessly eliding it into the Toccata; shaping a stately Minuetto to set off the Finale's headlong, bustling energy.

In the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, van Zweden underlines the contrasts between the bright overtones of the higher chords and the full-bodied sounds of the lower instruments. He keeps the sonorities buoyant - even the brasses maintain a lightweight sound - and always shapes the rhythmically irregular phrases with a sure sense of direction. And, despite the score's cool, Neo-classical demeanour, the engineering allows one to enjoy it for its sheer sensuous timbres.

Stravinsky's original, full 1911 scoring of Petrushka, the featured attraction, sparkles in this sonic frame. The clean, airy acoustic makes for vivid polyrhythms in the Waltz (Scene 3, track 7) and highlights the contrast between the unfolding smooth textures and the more rhythmic elements in the Dance of the Wet-Nurses (track 9). The conductor plays the score with character, maintaining its flow and balletic lilt even as he weights the fuller passages: the "dancing bear" sequence in Scene 4 chugs along nicely. He allows his soloists a surprising amount of rhythmic and expressive freedom. The flute brings a graceful rubato to The Magic Trick (track 2); the trumpet solo's return in the Waltz is almost sensually caressing; the oboe quietly insinuates itself into the textures in the Dance of the Wet-Nurses. The clarinet in the final scene is smoothly expressive.

I'm troubled, however, by hints of passing insecurity as the players negotiate the rhythmic intricacies of the first tableau. In the context of so otherwise fine a performance, this oughtn't to be a deal-breaker; but this sort of thing has, over time, evolved into a continuing annoyance, marring even high-profile accounts such as Rozhdestvensky/LSO (Nimbus) and Solti/Chicago (Decca). Older recordings betray no such nervousness - even Ernest Ansermet's distinctly second-tier Suisse Romande orchestra (Decca) meets the scene's musical challenges with adept assurance - and, thus, it is still to one of those that I would turn for a library version: to Ansermet, or to Mackerras (Vanguard), Muti (EMI), or Ozawa (RCA).

So: the sound is wonderful, the conductor is perceptive and the orchestra is responsive. If the opening of Petrushka doesn't bother you - and it mightn't - you really should consider this: you've probably never heard this music simply sound so good. Both the "Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra" and the "Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic" are billed, though it's nowhere made clear which aggregation performs which score; I assume there's some overlap of personnel.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach and journalist.

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