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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882 – 1971)
The Firebird – Suite excerpts (1911) [7:28]
Petrushka – Complete Ballet [30:08]
The Firebird – Suite (1919) [15:39]
7 Pieces from Les cinq droits [9:11]
Valse and Polka from Three Easy Pieces [2:45]
Valse pour les enfants – fragment [0:26]
The Rite of Spring – Part I; The Adoration of the Earth (beginning) [9:38]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-91)
Fugue in C minor, K426 [4:39]
Beecham Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Beecham (Firebird: 1911)
Royal Albert Hall Orchestra/Eugene Goossens (Petrushka)
Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Oskar Fried (Firebird: 1919)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (Rite)
Igor Stravinsky (piano: Les cinq, valses, Mozart)
Soulima Stravinsky (piano: Mozart)
rec. 1916-38

Another fascinating and important issue from Pristine, expertly engineered by Mark Obert-Thorn and his team. Here we have early – in some cases very early – recordings of Stravinsky ballets, done in the studio by leading conductors of the first half of the 20th century.

The recordings are inevitably crude and primitive; there’s nothing even Obert-Thorn could do about the eccentric balance, which gives us on track one the Dance of the Firebird rendered as a piccolo concerto! Or the monstrously flatulent contrabassoon in Petrushka, often reinforcing the bass where Stravinsky did not actually write for it – e.g. the last four pizzicato notes of Petrushka in the basses (track 7). This was sometimes done when engineers felt the lower strings on their own would fail to register on the recording.

Nevertheless, as your ears become accustomed to the sound, what comes across, or does so for me, is how remarkably good most of these performances are. Beecham and Stravinsky is not a partnership you’d think was made in heaven; and yet he gets his players pretty safely through the multiple dangers of the Infernal Dance on track 3. I doubt most of the musicians had ever played anything like it before, so this, and even more so the Petrushka from Goossens and the RAH Orchestra, indicate that there were fine players to be found in London around this time. Added to that, Beecham’s Firebird extracts were recorded in the midst of World War 1, which makes this item even more noteworthy.

The finest item on the disc is Oscar Fried’s outstanding Firebird of 1925 with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra. Recording techniques were moving on by then, and Fried’s interpretation is strikingly idiomatic. The orchestral playing is very fine, even if they were all hanging on by their teeth in the Infernal Dance (track 11)! Fried takes that at what would even today be a dangerous tempo, and it has a real sense of excitement. The Round Dance of the Princesses and the Lullaby of the Firebird (tracks 10 and 12), with their lovely woodwind solo writing, are beautifully done, and the finale builds up convincingly to its stirring climax, despite a percussion section that isn’t always quite with it! Recording balance is remarkably good.

After that, things on the CD get rather more bitty; there are ten tracks of obvious historical value featuring Stravinsky himself playing little piano pieces, from ‘Les cinq doigts’ and Three Easy Pieces. But be warned; some of the tracks are seriously deteriorated. Lovely, though to hear the composer himself playing the charming Valse from the Three Easy Pieces, and employing a surprising degree of rubato.

Stravinsky at the piano again on the final track, this time with his son Soulima as duettist, playing a Mozart Fugue that is probably most familiar in its version for string orchestra in the Adagio and Fugue, K546. It’s a dry performance, which makes it sound almost like one of Stravinsky’s own 1920s neo-classical pieces; the throw-away ending is so typical.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Stokowski’s Rite of Spring fragment from 1927 on the penultimate track – though it should be stressed that this appears to have been done for test purposes only, a full version being recorded and issued in 1929/30. The fact that it is about a semitone flatter than modern pitch doesn’t help; this may account for Obert-Thorn’s remark in the liner notes about the faster tempi adopted for the later version. But it is very distracting, as is the generally scrappy playing and poor balance.

I am a Stravinsky ‘nut’, so this CD has immense fascination for me. It would of course be useless as an introduction to the composer; but for those who are already enthusiasts, it’s a ‘must’.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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