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Stravinsky ballets LSO5096
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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird (1909-1910) [47:26]
Petrushka (1910-11, rev. 1947) [35:08]
The Rite of Spring (1911-1913, rev. 1947) [33:42]
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 21 and 24 September 2017, Barbican Hall, London, UK
Reviewed in surround sound
LSO LIVE LSO5096 SACD [47:26 + 69:07]

Remarkably, Igor Stravinsky wrote all this ballet music in 1910-1913, when he was still a young, rather inexperienced composer. He leapt from The Firebird, which still owes much to his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, to the much more original Petrushka, and then to the revolutionary Rite of Spring: three masterworks in four years to create modern music.

No wonder that Simon Rattle had always wanted to play the three scores at the same concert. He recalls in the booklet that he first proposed this programme to the Philharmonia Orchestra about forty years ago. The manager said: “that is such a stupid idea that I’m not even going to discuss it and in fact I’m not going to let you conduct any of them”. In September 2017, Rattle was at the beginning of his inaugural season as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra. His idea was heard rather more sympathetically, not least because he calls it “a statement of intent […] a tribute to the LSO, one of the greatest Stravinsky orchestras there has ever been”. That may be true in Europe. In the USA, orchestras in San Francisco, Cleveland, Chicago and New York had learned much from such conductors as Bernstein, Boulez, Tilson Thomas and Salonen, and Stravinsky himself.

This release comes from the two evenings when the programme was part of the LSO’s “This is Rattle” inaugural concerts. I attended the second of them. I was pleased to see the recording rig set up on the platform, but a bit apprehensive. Even at less than two hours of music, these continuously eventful scores are demanding; two intervals to separate the works aided everyone’s concentration. The night began with a 20-minute farewell to a distinguished long-serving player. Rattle’s speech ended with “Right, we had better start playing, as it’s a hell of a programme.” Even so, he saw no need to use a score for any of these complex pieces.

Boulez said: “The Firebird is the most interesting Stravinsky score from the instrumentation point of view.” You can hear what he meant right in the Introduction: kaleidoscopic shifts among sections and solos, and unusual effects such as the muted string glissandi in harmonics. Although Stravinsky claimed to have invented this, Ravel also has a claim (track 1, 1:41). The marking is ppp, and Rattle as ever expects really quiet playing at such moments. Get the volume just right for such moments, and it might be too loud for climaxes, depending on your listening space and equipment. There is a similar moment at the lead-in to the Second Tableau (track 10, 5:40) with a masterly control of the ensuing crescendo. In the closing pages, Rattle manages the poco a poco allargando (gradually broadening) rather as the composer did. This is a real stand-and-cheer moment, as it usually is. It is no surprise that Stravinsky conducted The Firebird live almost a thousand times, and made those conducting fees a major source of income in the times and places where he could not receive copyright income.

It is fascinating to hear the players respond so well to the many colouristic effects of this Russian fairytale scenario. There are many notable solos, such as the horn at The Sudden Appearance of the Tsarevich (the beginning of track 7 ) and the immediately following oboe tune at the Khorovod of the Princesses. This is a very fine account of the work, and it is a triumphant justification of performing in concert the full 1910 original ballet score rather than one of the familiar suites.

Petrushka is quite a change from what Stravinsky called the “Russian export style” that bewitched Paris in The Firebird. It is still a Russian tale with some Russian folk tunes, but in harmonic and orchestral garb Rimsky-Korsakov may have not condoned. The bustle of the opening Shrovetide Fair is immediately engaging. The sense of a public gathering – free, spontaneous and unstructured – is based, ironically enough, on the tight discipline and precision of the playing. The flute is especially good here; the score gives it much to do throughout. In a period of LSO’s very strong front desks, the palm goes to Philip Cobb, outstanding whether on first trumpet or cornet. The cornet playing for the ballerina’s dance is free, flexible and affectingly expressive. (Cobb was LSO principal trumpet in his very early twenties, and now graces that position for the BBC Symphony Orchestra.) There is a delightfully crisp Russian Dance to close the First Tableau, an example of the rhythmic élan found everywhere on this disc. Rattle superbly paces the touching conclusion, the long fade-out of Petrushka’s death, ending with a hollowness in great contrast to the opening festivities. The sound is no less satisfying than the performance; the piano is balanced inside the orchestra, not placed forward as it would be in a concerto.

The Rite of Spring is Rattle’s party piece. One live LSO performance – in January 2015, before he became Music Director – has already appeared in 2017 on an LSO Live DVD and Blu-ray, coupled with Berg, Webern and Ligeti. That Rite of Spring was widely praised. The performance here matches it for musical effect and aural excitement. From a properly ad lib, as marked, opening bassoon solo, and on to the metrical complexities as the other woodwinds join in the introduction, there is a tangible sense of natural growth. Next, The Augurs of Spring’s famous repeated chunky chords portray the dances of the young girls, here kept properly light and balletic with a swift pulse. The Spring Rounds give us another Rattle trademark, a very present double bass line, and some birdlike flute trills. The Dance of the Earth that closes Part One has elemental power, and rapid repeated trumpet notes drive the music on to its explosive dénouement. Part Two, equally dramatic, maintains tension through its several quieter passages, and the thrilling Sacrificial Dance brings a powerful cumulative crescendo at the end before the final blow, as the chosen one expires.

No nit-picking score reader will find a 35-minute live Rite of Spring as spick and span as the result of several hours of studio time, but this is a pretty impressive achievement. If any tiredness crept in, I noticed no serious blemishes in the hall or on the disc. What is essential and valuable in each of these three accounts is the sense of edge-of-the-seat live playing to a very high standard. The Barbican Hall acoustic is not flattering to large orchestras – it can harden in loud tuttis – but here it is quite acceptable. The instrumental definition and balancing are ideal for these works, as is the surround-sound SACD format; this is more to do with conductor and players than the venue.

The booklet in English, French and German contains the composer’s profile, Paul Griffiths’s notes and that intriguing interview with the conductor. Rattle has matched or even surpassed his much-admired CBSO versions of these works. His four-disc Stravinsky collection on Warner has other major works in fine performances, but if you want an SACD coupling of Stravinsky’s epoch-defining first three ballets, this has to be a leading recommendation.

Roy Westbrook

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