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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
The Golden Cockerel – Suite [26:27]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird (1910) [48:52]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 2017, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
ONYX 4175 [75:29]

I absolutely loved Petrenko’s Liverpool recording of The Rite of Spring, so I came to the same team’s Firebird with high anticipation and wasn’t disappointed.

First, though, to its partner work. I’ve long sung the praises of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas in general and of The Golden Cockerel in particular, so I’ll welcome anything that brings this music to a wider audience, and this is a beautifully played collection of the music that was later arranged into a suite (it scarcely matters that the arranging wasn’t done by Rimsky himself). The Astrologer’s chromatic fairy music glints delightfully, and the warmth of the strings that depict the Tsar’s life of luxury is a treat. There is a lovely Scheherazadian theme for the Queen of Shemakha, complete with glittering piccolo and percussion, and a nice sense of momentum builds through Dodon’s comical wedding procession, towards the end. Petrenko keeps in touch with the music’s touch of magic, allowing the fantastical elements their proper place, exemplified, of course, in the recurring raw fanfare that represents the crowing of the magical cockerel.

Those orchestral colours are even more vivid in The Firebird, the breakthrough work of Rimsky’s most successful pupil. The Stygian darkness of the opening feels like you could touch it, and those slithering harmonic glissandi only underline the atmosphere of spectral magic. Throughout there are wonderful wind solos, another Rimskian touch: listen, for example, to the liquid oboe associated with the Princesses, or the sultry bassoon in the Berceuse. The whole early scene in the orchard has a slightly languid quality to it, as though Petrenko and his musicians are wallowing in the sound; but there’s nothing wrong with that when the atmosphere is so delightfully rich and sensual, and I really enjoyed immersing myself in it. Furthermore, it contrasts well with the filigree acrobatics of the Princesses' game with the apples.

It’s a good recording, too. The engineers capture the depths of the bass textures and thunder of the drums brilliantly so that Kaschey’s monstrous creatures come to life most vividly. The Firebird’s intervention at the start of track 14 comes as a vivid contrast after the monsters' threatening rumblings, and there is a spine-tingling chill on the strings as they lead into the horn solo that launches the finale.

On a more melancholy note, listening to this CD in February 2021 made me wonder when we’re ever going to be able to hear something of the scale of The Firebird in the concert hall again. The few “live” events that are happening now are all with socially distanced bands using, most often, reduced orchestration, something that would be completely absurd with this music. In the meantime, however, we have recordings to tide us through, and Petrenko’s Stravinsky ballets will scratch my itch for this music until I’m allowed to hear it in the flesh again.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe

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