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Revolutionary Rhythms
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird - Suite (1910 rev. 1919) [21:36]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo & Juliet - excerpts from Suites Nos.1&2 (1935) [38:40]
Manuel DE FALLA (1876-1946)
The Three-Cornered Hat - Suite No.2 (1921) [12:03]
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrüken Kaiserslautern/Karel Mark Chichon
rec. 2013-16, Grosser Sendesaal, Congresshalle, Saarbrüken Germany

Having been very impressed by the first three volumes of a projected Dvořák symphony cycle from these same artists on the Hänssler Classic label, I was fascinated to hear how they would fare in three staples of the 20th Century ballet repertoire. This disc comes from Oehms Classics and it really is very good indeed.

Collectors new to the work of Karel Mark Chichon and the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrüken Kaiserslautern may legitimately wonder how well they will measure up against the competition, both current and historical, in repertoire so familiar and frequently recorded. The simple answer is that Chichon is a superb and sensitive interpreter of this music, the players of the orchestra provide brilliance, power and elegance as required and Oehms have given them a recording of subtlety, detail and wide dynamic range. Yes, it really is that good.

The music from these three ballet scores is collected together under the neat – but rather under-explained – title "Revolutionary Rhythms". The sub heading in the German-and-English-only liner is "between the stage and the concert hall", which goes some way towards explaining or justifying how these works came to have a life away from the theatre. A case in point is the suite Stravinsky extracted from his 1910 ballet The Firebird in 1919. This was the second of three such suites and over time this 1919 grouping has proved the most popular. As ever with Stravinsky, he produced these suites for pragmatic if not commercial reasons. The opulent extended original score, running to fifty minutes and requiring a large orchestra, was never going to tempt concert promoters with eyes on budgets. This 1919 suite contains most of the 'hit' music from the full score, presented in the same order as in the ballet, with the orchestration pared back to double woodwind and relatively modest brass. The 1945 suite adds some more music but the 1919 suite seems to make a virtue out of its relative concision. I have to say I love the complete score of this work – as so often with extracted suites, it is not just a case of the notes that are 'missing' but also the pacing of the work. The telescoping of the action does risk damaging the musical architecture. But that said, this suite works very well, not simply as an arbitrary selection of 'best bits' but as a valid work in its own right. It comes as no surprise that just about every great conductor and virtuoso orchestra have offered their insights into the piece - Stokowski no less than eight times apparently [I am not sure if he always used the 1919 score]. Bernstein/New York or Israel, Abbado/LSO, Szell/Cleveland, Stokowski/LSO or Berlin are just a few well-known versions. The very first digital LP I bought – sometime around 1981? – was an RCA/Mata/Dallas disc of this suite and pretty stunning it sounded too, although I do not think it has ever made it to CD.

Into this cauldron of competition Chichon tosses his hat. From the opening bars, this is something rather special. Chichon – no doubt helped by his alert players and the transparent engineering – conjures real atmosphere. The low strings stalk menacingly, trombones glower at a proper ppp, the muted trumpets and clarinets gibber in the half-light. The woodwind solos are taken with melting beauty and sensitivity. Chichon’s tender and expressive shaping of lyrical phrases is a recurring feature of the whole disc. There is a disarming simplicity that works wonderfully – he does exactly the same thing in his Dvořák, too. Nothing mannered or over-phrased, just the natural unfolding of a beautiful melody. This is countered by faster passages of nimble brilliance, so the Variation of the Firebird skitters with a swirling waltzing movement – easy yet delirious – that effectively dispels the gloom and menace of the opening. Listen to how well the engineering allows the figurations on harp and keyboard to register, but within the overall orchestral texture. Following this, the elegance of the Rondo of the Princesses is beautifully realised. The solo oboe is ideally poised; tender but emotionally held. An interesting point throughout the programme is that, while the orchestra can clearly project an impressive wall of instrumental tone as and when required, Chichon seems to want to avoid an overly saturated string sound. Later, at the close of the Prokofiev selection, this is very clear, but also at climaxes in the Stravinsky it seems that Chichon does not want to bludgeon the listener with weighty strings deploying intense vibrato – his is more a rapier than a broadsword. The benefits are that the rest of the orchestration is not overwhelmed by a wall of strings and also it allows greater nuance and detail within the string writing to register. The fade away to gentle rapt stillness at the end of this dance is again beautifully achieved. Which of course leads to one of the great musical coups de théâtre with the Infernal Dance exploding on the scene. Another Chichon characteristic is to set challengingly fast tempi on occasion. His Infernal Dance whirls with devilish menace – the brass are quite thrilling and the famous trombone glissandi register magnificently, as does the scampering inner detail from wind and strings. The pacing of the dance is very well handled, too, so as the firebird gradually draws the monsters under her spell the tension builds to a thrilling collapse into the Berceuse.

This, again, is played with disarming beauty by all sections of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, and I was struck how carefully Chichon points the many expressive and dynamic details in the score without over-emoting them. Another moment of heart-stopping beauty is the transition – all shimmering string expectation with fabulously distant dynamics – into the Finale with one of the great horn melodies. Chichon picks a perfect tempo here – quite steady but with quiet strength and his pacing is once more excellent. This is a wonderful climax to the work, but it is easy to misjudge the closing pages; too fast and the sense of 'happy-ever-after' rejoicing is lost, too slow and it labours. Chichon steers the elusive path between the two extremes to great effect, right down to the well-judged tempo of the very final molto pesante. As with all the performances here, it would be foolish to say they replace or supplant the great versions mentioned above – and indeed others I have not considered – but it easily deserves to be placed alongside such exalted company for a performance that is dynamic and sensitive, thrilling and touching by turns.

Comparisons with the Prokofiev are slightly harder to make. Chichon has chosen a conflated selection from across the first two suites the composer made of the ballet prior to its first staged performance. As such it is a unique – but intelligent – selection that seeks to follow the general action of the complete work in a very compressed form. Chichon chooses three movements from the 2nd Suite, No.1 Montagues & Capulets, No.2 the young Juliet and No.7 Romeo at Juliet's tomb, to frame five selections from the 1st suite, No.3 Madrigal, No.4 Menuett, No.5 Masks, No.6 Romeo & Juliet and No.7 Death of Tybalt. Similar musical choices and performing qualities are present again. The opening Montagues & Capulets is taken quite briskly, all muscular danger and held energy rather than the – equally valid – weighty pomposity a slower tempo can imply. There are so many inspired versions of this work, either complete or in suite form, that comparisons are all but impossible.

But I was interested to play this new disc directly alongside the justly famed complete recording from Lorin Maazel in Cleveland on Decca. The technical address of that performance is still quite staggering, with the power of the Cleveland orchestra and their collective virtuosity still near miraculous forty-five years on. But, I think it can be legitimately argued that somewhere along the line of the virtuoso-fest that is the older recording, some of the humanity of the score was lost. Take the young Juliet. In Cleveland, this is a virtuoso vehicle which, if you are a string player as I am, will leave you reeling in admiration. But what is lost is the playful, mercurial coquettishness of the character. The Deutsche Radio Philharmonie do yield to Cleveland in terms of sheer brilliance but this is a much more engaging and sympathetic characterisation. Simplicity is again the key and through this simplicity comes touching beauty. Ongoing credit to the Oehms engineering, which keeps the proportion of the music well in control. The early 70s Decca engineering cannot resist 'bulking' the textures at times, which can be exciting but here makes Juliet rather more muscular than I suspect Shakespeare had in mind! Likewise, the judicious balance of the percussion (a recurring quality across the disc) at the opening of Masks allied to Chichon's flowing tempo allows this to be a playful courting dance which logically leads into the meeting that is No.6, Romeo & Juliet. Tenderness is the key here. Superbly controlled dynamics and tempi which do not allow the music to sag make this a touchingly intimate encounter. Chichon shows a real flair for story-telling and again I love the way he holds the strings back from over-emoting in their big widely arching melody [track 12 around 2:30]. It is very easy to let this build to a premature climax that is all but impossible to sustain – Chichon paces this extended passage with an ideal balance of ardour and restraint which gradually flowers into the ecstasy of the young lover's meeting. The innocence of this meeting is powerfully juxtaposed in this selection with the brutality that is No.7, Death of Tybalt. Any violinist will tell you this is the passage they turn to first when this music hits their stand. It is horribly hard - and it goes on for pages. Chichon again sets an unforgivingly fast tempo, but huge credit to the strings here who play it so well. I love the bite and playful vehemence that the he evokes in the opening pages. Gradually this sours as it becomes a fight to the death. Perhaps at the fateful climax [track 14 around 2:50] is a moment when the epic weight of Cleveland and the 'Decca Sound' pays a dividend that this new recording cannot supplant. But in its own right this is still very impressive. The closing No.7, Romeo at Juliet's tomb, again succeeds by the emotional rightness of the interpretation. Romeo's despair is tangible with the heavy burden of his loss giving way to the closing minute where again the hushed dynamics and subtle scoring are beautifully caught by both players and engineers.

The disc is completed by the Suite No.2 from Manuel de Falla's The Three Cornered Hat, which consists of three sections; The Neighbours Dance, The Miller's Dance and Final Dance. As far as I am aware this constitutes the complete 2nd Suite, but the liner lists it as excerpts from the suite. Given the disc's title, I assume this music was chosen to highlight the liberating influence folk-rhythms had on much twentieth century music. After the drama of the Prokofiev these dances make an attractive contrast. Interestingly, Chichon favours a relatively mellow, quite benign approach. In comparison Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos, conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (in the complete recording with Victoria de los Angeles), or Ernest Ansermet with the L'Orchestre De La Suisse Romande and Teresa Berganza, are more overtly dramatic – rhythms snap and eyes flash. This is not to say Chichon is in any way flabby, just not as sharply characterised. No surprise, though, to find that the orchestra play with easy fluidity and swaying sensuousness. The closing Round Dance generates exciting energy with the awkward changes in meter convincingly handled – again I like the clearly etched accents that Chichon encourages the orchestra to play and his excellent pacing and control of tempo means that the work swirls to an exhilarating close.

At a push, I would prefer to hear the complete scores of all three of these works, but if selections have to be made then the suites and selections offered here are about as good as can be content-wise. Add to that interpretations of real stature aided by excellent playing and subtly sophisticated engineering and this is an excellent introduction to these three masterly ballet scores. One curious detail; the Stravinsky performance seems to have been compiled from two different venues two years apart – the first four tracks on the CD are the earlier session. I have listened carefully for any audible differences in acoustic or collective orchestral sound and can hear none. So even more credit to the creative team for such a consistent approach. A remarkably fine Stravinsky supported by insightful and powerful Prokofiev and sparkling Falla. A very impressive achievement by all concerned.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Richard Kraus



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