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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird - complete ballet (1910) [50:25]
Petrushka (1911 rev. 1947) [37:52]
The Rite of Spring (1913) [37:56]
Sydney Symphony Orchestra/David Robertson
rec. live, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, 6-9 August 2008 (Firebird), 4-6 August 2016 (Rite), 17-19 August 2016 (Petrushka)
ABC CLASSICS 481 4954 [2 CDs: 126:13]

Sets such as this always give me something of a dilemma. Every modern virtuoso orchestra and conductor worth their salt has contributed recordings of all or some of these three famous Stravinsky ballets. Likewise the scale of the works allows record companies to display their technical chops too. As a result there are multiple very fine recordings of all these pieces in their various revisions. So the dilemma is: do we need another set? For all the skill on display here, in all conscience I would have to say that there is not enough that is so exceptional that old stalwarts of a collection are surpassed.

The two main caveats are the engineering/recording location which is just a bit too airless, prone to picking up audience noise and with some odd internal balances, and some of conductor David Robertson's musical choices which work well in the Rite but lack fantasy in the Firebird and sheer rumbustiousness in Petrushka. The lack of any coupling with the Firebird results in a short measure disc - a counter to this argument is that the set is being offered at a very reasonable “twofer” price. As mentioned, the performances were all taken from concerts; Firebird back in 2008 and the other two from August 2016. The playing of the Sydney Symphony orchestra is consistently fine - indeed few orchestras find any terrors in Stravinsky's writing these days. There are points when the playing transcends fine; indeed the (uncredited) famous bassoon solo that open the Rite is as sensuously expressive as any I have heard - just listen to the beautifully graded use of vibrato - they find a sense of hypnotic poise that is surly exactly what Stravinsky had in mind. Through all three ballets Robertson plays down the ‘display’ element, favouring steady well-judged tempi. This works effectively in the Rite which can sometimes descend into a riot of unfocussed dynamism. Robertson's weight gives the music a sense of inevitability that makes the final sacrificial dance both dramatic and shocking in its implicit violence. Against that are these occasional odd choices made on the mixing desk - at one point trilling secondary trumpet lines overwhelm more important horn lines - indeed the horns seem to have been given the roughest deal throughout as far as balance is concerned. Overall this is the finest performance of the three in the set.

But then this same literalness in Firebird gives the music a kind of dry-eyed objectivity which perhaps emphasises its modernity but at the cost of the links back towards the fairy-tale works of Rimsky-Korsakov or the languid afternoons of Debussy. The transitions throughout the ballet are well handled, although the emergence of the heart-stopping horn melody at the end of the Berceuse lacks the subtle radiance the finest versions achieve. Certainly, if heard as a live performance this would be very enjoyable - although quite why a minute of enthusiastic applause is retained here by the ABC engineers after each performance I do not know. Of the three ballets, Petrushka - given in its 1947 revised form - is the least impressive. This work is such a kaleidoscope of musical/pictorial events that a performance needs to be bursting at the seams with colour and energy. I find Robertson rather too cerebral throughout – again, well-played though it is. The engineering again makes some curious choices - the closing ‘mocking’ trumpets representing Petrushka’s ghost being very full-blooded and present.

As mentioned, many conductors over many years have recorded this triptych of works and with the exception of that opening solo of the Rite this set displaces none of them from Dorati on Decca, Rattle on EMI, Inbal on Warner/Apex, Boulez on DG or Sony/CBS or even Kreizberg in Monte Carlo to name relatively just a handful of the 'sets' which spring to mind. And that is before individual performances or historical ones.

The accompanying notes for this new set are good - they read rather like the programme notes from the original concert reprinted but no worse for that. Solidly competent versions that fail to compete consistently with the best.

Nick Barnard



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