Classical Reissue Reviews

IGOR STRAVINSKY: The Rite of Spring; Firebird Suite; Petrushka Suite – Philharmonic-Sym. Orch. of New York/ Stravinsky – Naxos Historical

The composer himself leads his three most familiar ballet scores with a combination of conviction and solid baton technique to capture their imaginative physical power.

Published on February 16, 2012

IGOR STRAVINSKY: The Rite of Spring; Firebird Suite; Petrushka Suite – Philharmonic-Sym. Orch. of New York/ Stravinsky – Naxos Historical

IGOR STRAVINSKY: The Rite of Spring; The Firebird Suite; Petrushka Suite – Philharmonic-Sym. Orch. of New York/ Igor Stravinsky – Naxos Historical 8.112070, 73:40 [Not distr. in the U.S.] ****:

A degree of controversy always surrounds Stravinsky’s interpretation of his own scores: in this case, Stravinsky’s 1940 and 1946 renditions of his masterpieces conceived for Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, we confront the problem of tempo, given Stravinsky’s varying degrees of competence at the podium. Ernest Ansermet would call attention to the inconsistency of tempo in performances of The Rite of Spring by the composer; he often quipped that when he would query Stravinsky on his slowing down of a tempo to accommodate his less than exemplary conductor’s skills, Stravinsky would retort that his alone was the right tempo! Yet, for the sessions here proffered, Stravinsky had the New York Philharmonic as it existed during the John Barbirolli tenure as well as accumulated years of technical proficiency of his own, so the level of execution recommends itself, especially as restored by the ministrations of producer Mark Obert-Thorn.

Stravinsky inscribed the Firebird Suite (1910) on 28 January 1946 at Carnegie Hall, New York. The 1945 arrangement captures that combination of menace and magic that makes the score a child of its godfather Rimsky-Korsakov. The gestures carry an incisive sense of attack and dramatic purpose while vitally communicating the danced aspect of the music. The Adagio (Pas de deux), so often omitted in the versions we hear of the 1919 arrangement, conveys the exotic sensuality that appeals to both the aural and visual imagination. Harp and flute principals, along with a vibrant string section, place Stravinsky’s mysticism akin to that of Scriabin. The Scherzo employs the piano as a percussive instrument, the fluttering figures moving with incandescent litheness with more than a nod to Borodin’s alchemy. Lovely woodwind, horn, and viola work for the Rondo, the first “pure melody” in this ever-colorful ballet. A superheated Infernal Dance at full tempo raises our collective sense of rides to the Abyss. A moody Lullaby, slow and hazy, follows, almost a paean to Liadov or the lyric elements in Mussorgsky. The plucked harp chords lead us to the Final Hymn, with its aristocratic French horn solo over tremolo strings culminating in a harp run. Stravinsky maintains an elastic line here, the music’s achieving a noble sweep and pageantry.

The recording of the Petrushka Suite (1911) derives from a session at Liederkranz Hall, New York, 4 April 1940. The Magic Trick with its flute solo segues directly into the spirited Russian Dance, sporting a dazzling violin solo juxtaposed with the Philharmonic battery. The piano obbligato carries the wild colors forward, although the sonic aura feels compressed. Stravinsky plays up the ominous surrealism of Petrushka’s Room, the pseudo-gavotte interrupted by all sorts of jerky, mournful wind and brass gestures, high and low. The Wet-Nurses Dance opens what usually passes as the last section of the ballet, famous for its horn and string melody. The whirling rhythms and wicked syncopations pose no obstacle for the ensemble, and the music rushes forward with virile ascendancy. The Peasant and Bear has an eerie earthiness, touches of Mussorgsky’s Bydlo from Pictures at an Exhibition. The Gypsies strike their tambourines while the strings and horns slide in cunning harmony into the Dance of the Coachmen. Shall we ascribe the expert trumpet work to Harry Glantz? The buoyant dance explodes in fertile symmetries and asymmetries at once, breaking off for the final series of dizzying riffs of the Masqueraders.

As annotator Colin Anderson remarks, “a spirit of choreography informs the composer’s reading” of The Rite of Spring, the complete score (4 April 1940) posing few hazards for Philharmonic abilities metrically or in terms of intonation.  The new-famous Dance of the Young Boys and Girls, which Disney’s Fantasia set to erupting volcanoes, proceeds at a moderate tempo as the forces of burgeoning Spring release pent-up, primal erotic energies. Sonic limitations prevent the performance achieving the aural ecstasies of say, Muti’s Philadelphia inscription for EMI some twenty-five years ago. Still, the Spring Rounds section conveys urgency and the kinds of dissonant labor pains inherent in the throes of savage fertility rites. The mystique of pagan sacrifice builds inexorably in Stravinsky’s approach to the second half, culminating in the Elders summoning a young maiden  for ritual sacrifice, she who dances herself to death to conclude the ballet. The Introduction exhibits wonderful transparency of effect. The Glorification of the Chosen One projects the requisite passion and uninhibited vehemence, the Philharmonic brass and tympani is apocalyptic convulsions. The martial tempo for the Ritual of the Ancients seems to derive from Debussy’s Fêtes. Acerbic brass and string attacks make the Sacrificial Dance effective, the forces of shamanic self-denial literally in conflict with the will to life.

—Gary Lemco




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