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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
Reviewed in surround sound
LSO LIVE LSO5096 SACD [47:26 + 69:07]

BBC News announced the appointment of Simon Rattle as the new Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra on 3rd March 2015 to come into effect from September 2017. On June 23rd 2016 the UK voted for Brexit – a result Rattle was strongly opposed to with its consequences for the freedom of travel and employment for everyone especially musicians. In January 2021 Rattle announced his intention – after a 1 year extension to 2023 – to leave the orchestra for the Bavarian RSO. In February 2021 the City of London cancelled its plans for a new concert hall/home for the LSO – something again which Rattle had been vocal in his support for. All of which means that this two disc set of performances given in the bright new dawn of the “This is Rattle” festival celebrating the conductor’s arrival in 2017 are released now in 2022 almost as part of his legacy and an unmistakeable sense of an artistic opportunity lost.

As a conductor Rattle continues to generate debate. A quick scan of reviews on this site alone will see strongly contrasting opinions as to his enduring ability as a world-class conductor. However, the choice of these three famous Stravinsky ballets would seem ‘safe’ and sensible given Rattle’s proven track record in this repertoire as well as them showcasing the virtuoso world-class status of the orchestra. The coupling the three early ballets is now very common on CD – without any additional ‘fillers’ it is not especially generous but at around 16.00 for these two SA-CD discs this seems reasonable.

Rattle first recorded The Rite of Spring back in 1977 with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain so this new disc represents another chapter in a 45 year recording history of this work – and by my reckoning at least Rattle’s fourth commercial recording. These new recordings follow the LSO Live formula of taped concert performances with – presumably – some final rehearsal patching as/if required. There is absolutely no audible audience noise and the SACD multi-channel recording is very good (I listened to the SACD stereo layer) without somehow having the ease and air around the instruments that the finest recordings in the most accommodating venues do. Disc one is devoted to The Firebird. A notable feature across all three works is just how consistent Rattle is compared to his earlier recordings. He recorded these ballets in his halcyon days with the CBSO for EMI/Warner to wide spread acclaim. That earlier Firebird dates from 1989 and by timings alone is almost identical – with a very few seconds – with this new recording. But somehow long stretches of this new version simply do not take wing. I absolutely prefer the complete ballet to any of the various suites Stravinsky created. Not that those suites do not contain the bulk of the ‘best’ music but that simply the full ballet places them in their correct dramatic and musical contexts. For example the build-up into the famous Infernal Dance is a wonderful ratcheting up of tension and expectation in the complete work whereas in the suites it simply explodes into action.

However for interpreters the pacing of the first half of the complete ballet can be problematic – there are many pages of atmospheric scene setting music. Make no mistake this new version is very well played indeed – its the LSO and I would be surprised if it were otherwise. But somehow Rattle seems oddly routine with the music lacking mystery or atmosphere. Accents and rhythms are less pointed than I would expect and certainly than I hear in that 1989 recording. For a live performance this feels oddly safe and lacking adrenalin; accurate and detailed for sure but bloodless. With the catalogue groaning with just as virtuosic and well recorded versions this was surprisingly disappointing. Certainly anyone who has and enjoys Rattle’s CBSO performance does not need to “upgrade” to this one.

In the light of my tepid reaction to Firebird I approached the second disc with a certain degree of trepidation. But the difference is remarkable. For both these works Rattle uses – as he did previously - the 1947 revisions. In Petrushka here is the sharply defined characterisation, the brilliantly defined pictorialism that Firebird lacked. The orchestral playing is just as virtuosic but with the ideal combination of technique and personality. Rachel Gough on bassoon is a wonderfully indolent Moor while Gareth Davies’ flute/Ballerina is a picture of seductive innocence. But all the bustling Shrovetide Fair scenes teem with detail and energy. Philip Moore plays the important piano part with great skill but the engineering carefully places that instrument inside the orchestral group rather than giving it the misguided “solo” status some recordings afford bigger name players. At the very end Petrushka’s ghost is given truly malevolent power by the trumpets of Phillip Cobb and Gerald Ruddock. Again, Rattle’s interpretation is all but identical to his 1988 EMI/CBSO account in terms of timing but this time I do feel that the new version edges out the still-excellent Birmingham performance. That said, a direct lining up of the Barbican and the Warwick Arts Centre finds in favour of the extra weight and richness the latter gives the orchestra.

Finally The Rite of Spring receives a dynamic energised performance. Part 1 – the Adoration of the Earth is especially athletic – not the most brutal performance I have heard but with a compelling urgency. The clear recording again allows many of the intricate individual lines to register although again this comes at the price of tonal weight. The beginning of Part 2 The Sacrifice does suffer again from a sense of stasis and relative lack of tension that was problematic in Firebird but once the Glorification of the Chosen One is reached Rattle galvanises the LSO into a powerful closing quarter of the work. Interestingly Rattle is a good minute quicker than his 1989 incarnation most of which is in Part 2 and these closing pages benefit from the extra bite and snapping accentuations the LSO bring to their playing.

The liner includes a note from Rattle where he outlines a wish – brought to fruition in these performances – to play all three ballets in a single concert. Individually for pretty much any decent professional orchestras these works are now standard repertoire but in terms of sheer stamina all three on the same programme is still a big ask and one the LSO rise to with near superhuman skill. Whether the performances we hear are mainly from one or other of the two performances is not clear – most likely they are an amalgam of both. Quite why Firebird burns less brightly I am not sure. In isolation this set will disappoint nobody but neither would it go to the top of my Stravinsky compilation list. The Petrushka is very very good with the Rite and Firebird on a less exalted level but the sheer quality of the orchestral playing is an impressive delight throughout.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Roy Westbrook

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