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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Petrushka (1911) [34:35]
Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920) [9:04]
Orpheus (1946-47) [30:29]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, London, 6 December 2014 (Symphonies, Orpheus), 21 March 2015 (Petrushka)

These concert recordings have much to recommend them, not least for the programme, which is made up of three major works by Stravinsky that have rarely, if ever, been issued together on the same disc. Vladimir Jurowski, in addition, has chosen the original scores of both Petrushka and the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, whereas most conductors select the later revisions. I have always preferred the 1911 score of Petrushka with its fuller orchestration, including the glittering glockenspiel, rather than the slimmed-down 1947 version. My benchmark for the 1911 edition is the account Pierre Monteux recorded with the Boston Symphony for RCA in 1959. Monteux, after all, premiered the work and he brought not only authority to the performance, but also real humanity. That early stereo account still sounds very good, not betraying its age in the least.

It is indeed a compliment, then, to speak of Jurowski’s new recording in the same breath, but it is that good. Of course, the sound is a factor here. Everything is clearly heard and all kinds of details emerge that bring home the originality of the score more than I ever expected. The Royal Festival Hall is not the ideal venue for recording, but the engineers have obviously done their work well, so that sufficient warmth balances the clarity. Furthermore, Jurowski has the London Philharmonic playing at the top of their game. He balances the sections of the orchestra impeccably and the various solos, such as the cornet, bassoon, and flute in the third scene, leave nothing to be desired. The important piano role is well integrated and not spotlighted, as if it were a miniature piano concerto. Yet it is well projected in the hands of the excellent (unnamed) pianist. Jurowski’s meticulous attention to rhythmic precision is notable and does not detract from his overall characterization of the score. Unlike Monteux, he opts for the drum rolls connecting the scenes of the ballet. They seem to be placed offstage here, which seems right to me. I came away from this performance with renewed admiration for Petrushka.

The original 1920 version of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments is also noteworthy for its large brass and woodwind sections, including the use of an alto flute and the rarer alto clarinet. This fuller orchestration makes for a more colourful piece than its sparer successor. Stravinsky composed the Symphonies at the beginning of his neo-classical period, but at the same time it looks back to his folk-inspired works. Some performances make the work seem unduly austere. One of my favourites is with the London Sinfonietta and Esa-Pekka Salonen on Sony, where the conductor chose the 1947 revision. There is little to choose between these accounts. Jurowski’s is a bit brighter and more playful, while Salonen’s is darker and straighter. Both are far superior to Stravinsky’s own 1951 account on Sony’s 22-disc edition that has poor tuning in the brass and, naturally, is in mono.

The ballet Orpheus is one of those pieces more appreciated than loved. It has a certain chaste beauty that is attractive and its chamber music orchestration suits its neo-classical nature perfectly. Jurowski is up against the composer’s authoritative account with the Chicago Symphony, which perfectly captures the essence of the music. That performance is recorded more closely than Jurowski’s and brings out instrumental details not as apparent here. Otherwise, Jurowski has the measure of the music and the orchestra plays as well as it does in the other works. Another first-class account is that by the eponymous Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on DG. All three do the work as much justice as it deserves. It is not a piece I listen to often, especially compared to its disc mates here. I should note, however, that the listing of the individual tracks on the back of the CD booklet has reversed the order of three of the dances in the second scene. They should be ‘Pas de deux’, ‘Interlude’, and ‘Pas d’action’, in that order. Also where many recordings divide Petrushka into 15 or 16 tracks, this one has one track for each of the four scenes. Anthony Burton has contributed well-written and detailed notes in the booklet.

If you want this particular combination of works, I see no reason to look elsewhere. All the performances practically equal the best of those before. I would even give the palm now to this Petrushka, if you are seeking the 1911 original score.

Leslie Wright



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