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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Der Feuervogel (The Firebird), (Ballet suite 1919) [19.35]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 [19.50]
Staatskapelle Dresden/Rudolf Kempe
rec. January 1976, Lukaskirche, Dresden, Germany
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300890BC [39.37]

This Berlin Classics release features a recording each of works by Stravinsky and Britten originally issued on Eterna the East German record label and is a tribute to the work of Dresden born conductor Rudolf Kempe, working here with the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden.

These Stravinsky and Britten recordings from 1976 at Lukaskirche, Dresden were Kempe’s final recording sessions.

In 1924-28 Kempe trained both on piano and oboe at the orchestral school of Sächsische Staatskapelle, Dresden before leaving the city for a post at Leipzig. In 1949 Kempe attained the great honour of becoming general music director of the Opera and Staatskapelle Dresden, serving until 1953. Kempe spoke of this post war period with the Staatskapelle as “the happiest years of my life the last glimpse of Paradise’ - with opera, concerts and chamber music all year round in the same place.” Political tensions forced Kempe away from his Staatskapelle post in the city of his birth and it was only after twelve years away in 1965 that Kempe was invited back to Dresden then part of DDR at the time of Cold War, working regularly with the orchestra up to his death in 1976 aged sixty-five, both in concert performances and in the recording studio. The complete orchestral music of Richard Strauss recorded 1970-75 for Eterna (reissued on EMI now Warner) is generally ranked as his finest achievement with the Staatskapelle. As the Staatskapelle had no music director or principal conductor during the years 1968-1975, the author of the booklet essay Ringo Gruchenberg has suggested Kempe was in effect “The Secret Commander of the Staatskapelle Dresden”.

Known as Stravinsky’s breakthrough work, his ballet score The Firebird (Der Feuervogel, L’Oiseau de Feu) marks the start of the rewarding collaboration between Sergei Diaghilev and Stravinsky that notably resulted in the ballets Petrushka, The Rite of Spring and Pulcinella. Stravinsky’s ballet music The Firebird is based on a Russian folk tale about the hero Prince Ivan searching an Enchanted Forest for the Firebird, a magical glowing bird resembling a beautiful woman. Composed for the 1910 Paris season of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Stravinsky later prepared three separate concert suites that he himself conducted widely. The most admired of these suites is the 1919 version that Rudolf Kempe performs here which employs under half the material of the original ballet score together with some simplification of the orchestration.

Immediately one notices the brilliant playing of the Dresden orchestra, in music that swings from colourful drama to uplifting enchantment. It never feels as if Kempe is forcing the pace and the line of the music feels completely natural, with ideal handling of dynamics. Kempe’s end-product has an abundance of excitement, drama and sensitive weight of volume. Notable for its dark, ominous wind writing that opens the ‘Dance of the Firebird’ this is a very attractive movement that simply skitters and scampers with wondrous expression. The exceptional woodwind contributions and the scurrying strings are striking and create a marvellous sound. The beautiful playing of the famous ‘Princesses’ Khorovod (Round dance)’ is moving, with its wonderfully memorable song-like melody which is quite enchanting. Here the woodwinds, especially the reedy oboe, makes the most of the ample opportunity to shine. Thrilling playing saturates the ‘Infernal dance of King Kashchei’ with its compelling and rapidly shifting rhythms developing to near frenzy, evoking wild revelry. Very conspicuous are the gripping contributions of the dark brass which, with the low strings, underpin the movement. The popular ‘Berceuse (Lullaby)’, haunting and moving, is irresistibly performed. The near hypnotic, soothing quality that Kempe obtains from his charges is utterly convincing. In the final movement the haunting horn solo that announces the main melody is gradually taken up by the full might of the orchestra to create an imposing Ravelian sunburst climax making the hairs rise on the back of one’s neck. Throughout, the vivid and contrasting colours produced by Kempe’s players are quite remarkable.

The Firebird remains a highly popular choice in concert hall and studio and together with the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique is one of the works I tend to encounter the most in live performance. There are numerous excellent versions of The Firebird in the catalogue. I have been re-appraising the recordings in my collection - complete ballet and ballet suites - and have whittled down the tally to three main contenders that should provide great satisfaction. There is the dramatic account of the complete The Firebird ballet from Antal Dorati conducting the London Symphony Orchestra from 1959 at Watford Town Hall, London. These are scintillatingly fresh performances with a wonderful sense of drama, rendered in vividly clear sound, if a touch dry, on Mercury Living Presence (review). Highly desirable too is Bernard Haitink with the Berliner Philharmoniker playing the complete The Firebird ballet from 1989 at Philharmonie, Berlin on Philips. Haitink’s exciting account is both beautiful and powerful; intensely exhilarating stuff. Also greatly enjoyable, is the stirring and most attractively-played live account of 1919 Firebird suite from Mariss Jansons and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks recorded in 2004 at Philharmonie, Munich on Sony (review). Jansons certainly knows this score inside out as I can attest from attending a magnificent performance of the 1945 suite with him conducting Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at Philharmonie as part of 2010 Musikfest Berlin.

A high-quality score that makes a significant impression on me, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem is heard far too infrequently in the concert hall. Andrew Manze conducting the Münchner Philharmoniker won me over to the work back in 2010 at the Philharmonie Munich. Also lodged in my memory is a 2016 Hallé concert with Andrew Gourlay conducting a compelling performance at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. Should the opportunity arise to hear a live concert performance of the score I strongly advise that it should to be taken without hesitation.

Sinfonia da Requiem was Britten’s response to a commission from the Japanese government as part of its planned celebrations to mark the founding of the 2,600th anniversary of the Mikado dynasty. Owing to its Christian subject matter, which Britten based around the requiem mass, the commissioners rejected the score as they had been expecting something more celebratory in tone. Right from the threatening and darkly ominous timpani thwacks at the commencement Kempe marshals his large Dresden forces with impressively firm control. Clearly understanding the character of this dark and melancholic score Kempe convincingly balances the orchestral sections and individual instruments. With the ‘Lacrymosa’ Kempe maintains the funereal, bleak unrelenting tread high on suspense and tension. In the ‘Dies irae’, a fierce reaction to the pain of grief and man’s base nature, the racing strings, stabbing wind figures and throbbing percussion exert their presence to striking effect. A change of mood is heralded by the amenable and soft rocking rhythms of the ‘Requiem aeternam’ that prevail until around point 2.07 when the sense of gloomy foreboding gradually returns. From around 3.00 the playing increases in weight and drama, exhibiting predominantly dark moods with a certain claustrophobic feel to the writing. At the conclusion Kempe and his players leave behind a resounding sense of accord and hope.

With playing of such elevated quality this Kempe/Dresden recording can undoubtedly stand confidently alongside my benchmark recording of Sinfonia da Requiem from CBSO under Sir Simon Rattle conducting an ominously dark, tension filled performance from 1984 at Warwick Arts Centre on EMI.

This Berlin Classic re-issue was recorded in 1967 at renowned studio at Lukaskirche, Dresden and we are told that the original Eterna master tapes have been re-mastered. Captured fairly closely and somewhat on the dry side, the sound quality is vividly clear and satisfyingly balanced. The accompanying booklet to this Berlin Classics card gatefold album contains two essays: ‘The Secret Commander of the Staatskapelle Dresden’ by Gruchenberg and ‘In Memory of Rudolf Kempe (1919-1976)’ by Eckart Schwinger taken from sleeve notes to the original 1977 Eterna LP which also provides useful information on each work. The card CD sleeve is designed as a facsimile of the original Eterna LP sleeve.

With Staatskapelle Dresden on peak form, collectors should snap up this excellent album of Stravinsky and Britten works without delay.

Michael Cookson
 

 

 




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