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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird (1910) (Complete ballet) [43:51]
The Rite of Spring (1913) [34:15]
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Pierre Boulez (Firebird), Zubin Mehta (Rite)
rec. 20 January, 1975 (Firebird); 26 September, 1977, Manhattan Center, New York (Rite) ADD

Here we have another pair of CBS/Sony recordings, first issued in the 1970s as Stereo/Quadraphonic LPs, and now remastered from the analogue tapes by Michael Dutton for issue as an SACD.

Pierre Boulez’s recording of the complete Firebird was set down during his period as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic (1971-77). He recorded it again, this time for DG with the Chicago Symphony, in 1992 (revew).

The complete ballet score can seem somewhat too much of a good thing when one simply listens to the music divorced from the dance element. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that Stravinsky pulled out all the choicest plums for the Suite. I confess there have been times when I’ve found the full ballet drags a bit. Not here, though. Boulez’s direction is taut and incisive; his performance held my interest throughout. Furthermore, the recording itself allows you to hear so much intricate detail, so the ear is constantly led from one bit of colourful scoring to another.

I must admit that in the Introduction and at the start of Tableau I, whilst I relished the great clarity that Boulez – and the engineers – obtain, I did wonder if the price paid for this was less magical hush than one might expect. However, when the Firebird appears and dances the playing is glittering and so precise. From that point on I was hooked, admiring, for example, the clarity and agility of the orchestra in ‘Jeu des princesses avec les pommes d’or’. In contrast, I liked the graceful rendition of the ‘Khorovod des princesses’; here, Boulez ensures that the music flows in an ideal fashion.

The ‘Carillon féerique – Apparition des Monstres’ benefits from incisive conducting and playing. The glittering percussion and biting brass really bring this section to life. Later, the ‘Danse infernale’ is animated and, at times, brazen though I’ve heard performances of this episode that are more frenzied; Boulez keeps a cool head and controls the music tightly. He leads a refined account of the ‘Berceuse’ in which I loved the veiled tone of the solo bassoon. One advantage of hearing the complete ballet is that when you get to the short Tableau II you appreciate the happy ending rather more than is the case when just the suite has been played; I certainly found that to be the case here.

This is a very good performance of Firebird and I enjoyed and admired it. I think I’m right in saying that is available as part of a three-disc Sony set of some of his Stravinsky recordings. However, collectors may find it more convenient to acquire it in this single-disc format where, of course, it has the attraction of SACD sound.

Zubin Mehta succeeded Boulez as the NYPO’s Music Director but this recording of The Rite of Spring was made shortly before he took up that appointment. In fact, he was still Music Director in Los Angeles at the time: his tenure in Manhattan started in 1978 and ran until 1991. I’m afraid that this recording of The Rite did not strike me as a complete success. The first few minutes go well; Mehta builds the excitement in ‘Les Augures printanières’ and carries the excitement over into ‘Jeu du rapt’. However, he lost me in ‘Rondes printanières’ which is taken at a very measured pace indeed; in fact, at this speed the music is ponderous. The explosion of percussion (2:34) is a powerful moment, but even so one has the impression that a lumbering dinosaur is being portrayed in music. The tempo for ‘Jeux des cités rivales’ is as I’d expect, but even so Mehta’s performance doesn’t really grip me. He and the orchestra do invest ‘Danse de la terre’ with appropriate savagery, though.

The first couple of sections in Part II seem to be seriously lacking in tension. Matters improve, however, for ‘Glorification de l’élue’ which is played with the primitive energy it needs. But then I find ‘Action rituelle des ancêstres’ lacking in tension, at least until the full brass blare at 1:48. At first, the final ‘Danse sacrale’ seems not quite as punchy as some accounts that I’ve heard, though the timpani are properly incisive; then, from 2:27 Mehta summons up the necessary frenzy to drive The Rite to its conclusion. Others may find more in this account of Stravinsky’s revolutionary ballet score but I’m afraid it only gripped me intermittently; the performance is too variable.

So, this disc contains an excellent account of Firebird and a less thrilling version of The Rite. A key consideration, of course, will be the sound. The recording of Firebird is quite analytical. This brings pluses and minuses. On the plus side you can hear a huge amount of detail so that Stravinsky’s scoring can be fully appreciated. The minus is that sometimes the detail can be a little too prominent: I think, for example, of the harp part in quieter episodes. I was less conscious of the analytical nature of the sound when I listened through loudspeakers rather than headphones, as you might expect. The recording of The Rite was made 2 ½ years later in the same venue and by almost exactly the same engineering team. I felt the sound, though clear, was not quite as analytical as had been the case with the earlier recording; perhaps my ears had adjusted. But I must emphasise that both recordings are very clear and have terrific impact. Heard as a stereo SACD, this remastered disc is impressive.

The original LP sleeve notes have been retained. The note about The Rite by Peter Eliot Stone is a good one, but Firebird benefits from a note by the composer himself. In this he describes the background to the composition and also the first performance. The description of the premiere includes a juicy anecdote about Diaghilev deciding that a troupe of horses should be led onstage at an early point in the ballet. As Stravinsky drily relates, the experiment was not a success and was not repeated. Probably the nail in coffin of that particular piece of stagecraft occurred when one horse, “a better critic than an actor, left a malodorous calling card.”

This disc is well worth acquiring to hear Pierre Boulez in Firebird.

John Quinn

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