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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Pétrouchka (original version, 1911) [35:26]
Jeu de cartes (Game of cards), (1937) [22:17]
The Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre/Valery Gergiev
rec. 2009 (Jeu de cartes) & 2014 (Pétrouchka), Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg
Reviewed as a stereo DSD64 download from NativeDSD. Recorded in DSD
Pdf booklet included
MARIINSKY MAR0594 SACD [57:51]

More out of frustration than facetiousness I’ve dubbed Gergiev ‘Valery the Variable’. His Kirov opera boxes, recorded for Philips in the 1990s, were generally well regarded, and his LSO set of the Prokofiev symphonies from the noughties – Philips again – is very good indeed. Staying with Russian rep, he and LSO Live have since given us undercooked Rachmaninov – a ‘top notch’ Symphony No. 2 excepted – and some overheated Scriabin. Gergiev’s Mariinsky Shostakovich is just as erratic, a hard-hitting Leningrad and a riotous account of The Nose notwithstanding.

Oddly, for a conductor who specialises in the music of his homeland, Gergiev has recorded comparatively little Stravinsky. In 1999, he and the Rotterdam PO provided the backing for Peter Rump’s film, The story of Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps, a collaboration Ian Lace described as ‘utterly absorbing’ (Arthaus Musik). As for L’Oiseau de feu, there’s a Kirov video from 2003 (Euroarts). The latter was also well received, this time by Paul Corfield Godfrey, all of which augurs well for the album under review.

My comparatives in Pétrouchka, given here in its original version, are those of period-instrument specialists François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles (Actes Musicales) and the London Phil under Vladimir Jurowski (LPO LPO0091). For Jeu de cartes, I’ve chosen Robert Craft’s Philharmonia recording (Naxos) and, my wild card, a new account from Gustavo Gimeno and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg (Pentatone PTC5186 650).

Let’s start with the less familiar Jeu de cartes, a ballet in three ‘deals’. Commissioned and choreographed by George Balanchine, it was premiered in New York in April 1937. It’s a game of poker, in which the evil Joker is conquered by what Stravinsky called ‘the group of hearts’. (The political subtext is unmistakable.) Cue a medley of dances that show the composer at his transparent, economical and clear-eyed best. That said, the music has a warmth, an approachability, that one doesn’t associate with the composer’s neo-classical period (1920 to 1954). Indeed, in the right hands the piece has a sharp wit and rhythmic verve that’s hard to resist.

Musically, Gergiev reveals a very strong hand – fine pacing and deft characterisation – but thanks to engineers Jonathan Stokes and Neil Hutchinson he comes up trumps in terms of sound. Goodness, what a wealth of detail, array of colours and pleasing perspectives. And while its good, Craft’s 1998 recording just isn’t in the same league. However, as a reading it’s very persuasive, and, like Gergiev, he maintains a good, strong narrative throughout. Two fine orchestras, no question, but these virtuosic Russians have the edge here.

Craft, Stravinsky’s long-serving amanuensis, is always worth hearing in his master’s music. That’s certainly true of his Jeu de cartes, part of a generous collection titled The Later Ballets; it really ought to be on your shelves or hard drive. As for Gimeno, whose recent Shostakovich was frankly underwhelming, his sluggish tempi and strangely anodyne performance here puts him out of the game at an early stage. Even the sound is rather disappointing. Of course, the rest of his two-disc Stravinsky set – I’ve yet to hear it all – may be more successful.

I suspect most listeners know Pétrouchka via the revised 1947 score, which omits a number of instruments (there’s no off-stage band and no glockenspiel, for example). Originally written for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1911, it’s a darkly brilliant tale of three puppets brought to life at the 1830 Shrovetide Fair in St Petersburg. I generally seek out the later version, although, if anything, the lustrous Rimskian original seems even more deeply rooted in the folkloric loam of Mother Russia. And that’s why a chance to revisit Stravinky’s initial conception ls especially welcome.

As expected after his vivid and vital Jeu de cartes, Gergiev’s Pétrouchka is instantly immersive, those irresistible rhythms delivered with enormous energy and appropriate edge. The extra harp adds real magic to the proceedings, and the Mariinsky winds in ‘The Conjuring Trick’ are beautifully caught. The recording, engineered by the veteran Vladimir Ryabenko, is big and bold, with magnificent bass and rollicking snare drums. Happily, the sonics aren’t overblown, although the recording puts the listener firmly in the front stalls.

It’s been ages since I’ve heard this much of Stravinsky’s extraordinary writing, its stark contrasts, runaway rhythms and its sheer, inexorable sense of drama; for that Gergiev and Ryabenko must take equal credit. There are so many felicities here, from that eerie barrel-organ effect in ‘The Crowds’ to the nimble trumpet in the ballerina’s waltz. Also, Gergiev makes the most of that unsettling change of mood as the Moor joins in the dance. In fact, I’ve never been so completely mesmerised by the music’s deep, dark spell. And that would be high praise for any conductor, let alone this one.

Is this the same baton waver I’ve lambasted in the past, as we sweep emphatically through ‘Shrovetide Fair (towards evening)’ and the glittering ‘Dance of the Wet-Nurses’? And what passion Gergiev brings to the gypsy girls’ dance and that of the coachmen and grooms, the orchestra playing with glorious abandon throughout. In striking contrast, the hero’s death has real pathos here, something that few rivals manage to convey at the potentially anticlimactic close.

If Gergiev’s Pétrouchka is unremittingly Russian, Roth’s, with its emphasis on metropolitan suavity, is quintessentially French. Also, the period instruments add a certain piquancy to the overall sound that’s most appealing. And even though the recording itself is less overt, it reveals plenty of nuance and colour. Indeed, it’s a beautiful performance that’s very beguiling, too. That would be reason enough to own this album album, if it weren’t already a ‘must have’ for the coupling, a revelatory account of Le sacre du printemps.

Jurowski’s Pétrouchka, recorded live at London’s Royal Festival Hall in May 2015, is certainly more propulsive than Roth’s. Not only that, there are times when he ekes out some startling phrases and timbres. However, in this company Jurowski’s bright, forensically recorded performance – coupled with equally forthright accounts of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Orpheus – now seems too focused on detail at the expense of weight or a compelling narrative. That very linear, symphonically streamlined approach is one of the reasons I so disliked Jurowski’s recent Swan Lake (Pentatone).

Of course, these are just two comparatives each from a full catalogue, but I hope they point up the considerable virtues of Gergiev’s Pétrouchka and Jeu de cartes. Indeed, the latter's performances are now prime choices for both works, not least because they’re so theatrical; for me, that always helps to distinguish good ballet recordings from exceptional ones. Comprehensive multilingual liner-notes add to the feel of a quality package.

Riveting performances, very well played and recorded; Gergiev at his very best.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: Dave Billinge




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