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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Chant Funèbre (Funeral Song) (1909) [09.14]
L'Oiseau de feu (The Firebird) Suite 1919 [20.40]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 12, Op. 112 ‘The Year 1917’ (1961) [39.50]
ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien / Cornelius Meister
rec. live, 17 October 2017 (Shostakovich), 15 February 2018 (Stravinsky); Konzerthaus, Vienna
CAPRICCIO C5352 [69.23]

Cornelius Meister has made some quite outstanding recordings with the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien, none finer than the set of complete Martinů symphonies. For this new Capriccio release of live performances of Stravinsky and Shostakovich, Meister was still serving as the orchestra’s chief conductor and artistic director.

Stravinsky wrote his Chant Funèbre (Funeral Song) in 1908 as a memorial to his composition teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. After its first performance in January 1909 at the great hall of Saint Petersburg Conservatoire the Chant Funèbre was lost. In 2015 musicologist Natalia Braginskaya unearthed the orchestral parts in the Conservatoire archive. Almost one hundred and eight years since it was last heard, in December 2016 Valery Gergiev conducted the reconstructed score at Mariinsky concert hall, St Petersburg. Meister and his ORF RSO are in tremendous form here, creating a performance of concentration and glorious drama with a near constant undertow of mysterious foreboding.

Known as Stravinsky’s breakthrough work, his ballet L’Oiseau de Feu (The Firebird) marks the start of the composer’s rewarding collaboration with Sergei Diaghilev that continued notably with ballets Petrushka, The Rite of Spring and Pulcinella. Stravinsky’s The Firebird ballet is based on a Russian folk tale about 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 from the ballet that he conducted widely himself. The most admired of these suites is the 1919 version, which Cornelius Meister performs here, 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 ORF RSO in music that swings from colourful drama to uplifting enchantment. Meister never forces the pace and the line of the music feels so natural with decisive handling of dynamics resulting in an abundance of excitement and drama. Notable for its dark, ominous wind writing that opens the Dance of the Firebird, this is such an attractive movement it scampers along with wondrous expression. Conspicuous are the exceptional woodwind contributions and the scurrying strings that create a marvellous sound. Affecting is the beautiful playing of the famous Princesses’ Khorovod (Round dance) with its wonderfully memorable song-like melody which is quite enchanting. Here the woodwind, especially the reedy oboe, makes the most of its ample opportunity to shine. Thrilling playing saturates the Infernal Dance of Kastchei with its compelling and rapidly shifting rhythms developing to near frenzy, evoking wild revelry. Noticeable are the compelling contributions of the dark toned 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 Meister obtains from his players is entirely convincing. In the finale the haunting horn solo, which 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 the Vienna players are impressive.

Remaining a highly popular choice in both concert hall and studio The Firebird is a work that I have encountered rather frequently in live performance. In the catalogue there are numerous excellent versions of both the complete ballet and ballet suites, and I’m listing my favourite recordings of each that should provide great satisfaction. Hard to beat and a clear first choice is the dramatic ‘classic’ account of The Firebird complete ballet from Antal Dorati conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in 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. Using the 1919 suite, exceptional and entirely committed is the account from the Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolf Kempe produced in one of his final recording sections from 1976, at Lukaskirche, Dresden on Berlin Classics. Greatly enjoyable is the most attractively played live account of 1919 suite from Mariss Jansons and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks recorded in 2004 at Philharmonie, Munich on Sony. Jansons certainly knows this score inside out, as I can attest from attending a magnificent performance of the 1945 suite with him conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at Philharmonie, as part of 2010 Musikfest Berlin. With committed playing this exciting new recording from the ORF RSO Wien under Cornelius Meister is enjoyable and certainly well played but I’m not quite able to place it alongside the finest recordings of the 1919 suite.

It seems likely that in 1960 pressure from Khrushchev’s associates was the reason Shostakovich joined the Communist Party and with his deteriorating health this period was another low point in his life. A ‘Lenin’ Symphony was certainly spoken of by Shostakovich, but it never materialised as possibly the composer was aware of an unpalatable side to Lenin. Nevertheless, in 1961 Shostakovich completed his Symphony No. 12 subtitled The Year of 1917, which he did dedicate to the memory of Vladimir Lenin, leader of the October Revolution of 1917. In the manner of music tableaux, the composer gave each of the four movements a descriptive title. It was the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra who premièred the score in October 1961 conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky who had been the composer’s favoured conductor of his works. In 1962 their relationship became strained owing to Mravinsky’s refusal to give the first performance of the Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar. The Symphony No. 12 is an often-overlooked work and no less an orchestra than the Berliner Philharmoniker only gave its first performance of the work as recently as 2009. It seems that the symphony’s main area of criticism concerns the composer’s blatant intention to satisfy the Soviet authorities and in addition it’s considered disparagingly imitative of a film score.

Titled Revolutionary Petrograd the First Movement might easily be seen as reflecting the restlessness of the Soviet people as a result of social turmoil. Here Meister and his committed players provide a driving agitation and tension that cuts like a knife, communicating significant drama with crushing climaxes. The Second Movement, an Adagio, is titled Razliv a village near Petrograd, where in 1917 Lenin was in hiding while planning the October uprising. Meister takes the Razliv - Adagio noticeably slower than most other accounts I checked, including Mravinsky, Barshai, Ashkenazy, Wigglesworth and Vasily Petrenko, the exception being from Haitink. With the dark, low strings in impressive form Meister’s measured pace creates a bleak shadowy scene with a sense of nervous foreboding. A short and fiery Scherzo is titled Aurora, the name of the battle cruiser whose blank shot at the Winter Palace signalled the commencement of the Revolution. Maintaining the restless mood, Meister and his players build up a striking and pulsating crescendo indubitably representing the people rising up in revolt. Optimistically titled The Dawn of Humanity in the heroic rather celebratory tone of the Finale, Meister finds a convincing balance between ebullience and the scornful vulgarity so characteristic of the composer. Especially striking is the potency the Vienna players give to the extended conclusion of the score.

In a confident, resolutely driven performance under Meister the ORF RSO Wien capture the colour and spirit of the score in thrilling fashion. Quite simply this is one of the finest recordings of the work I know. Probably the best-known accounts of Symphony No. 12 and rightly so, are Rudolf Barshai conducting the WDR Sinfonieorchester recorded in 1995 at Philharmonie, Cologne part of his complete cycle on Brilliant Classics; and Yevgeny Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra recorded 1961 at Leningrad
on Praga. Of the more recent recordings making its mark is a riveting performance from Mark Wigglesworth conducting the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in 2005 at Hilversum on BIS. Worthy of attention too is Vasily Petrenko’s enthralling 2009 Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool account on Naxos.

For Capriccio the engineering team in the Wiener Konzerthaus has provided satisfying sound quality. Christian Heindl has written the helpful booklet essay titled Russia before and after the revolution - Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostakovich. Under Cornelius Meister the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien give fine performances of Stravinsky’s works. The Shostakovich is quite simply top drawer.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Roy Westbrook

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