Classical Reissue Reviews

STRAVINSKY: His First Recordings = The Rite of Spring; The Firebird—Suite – Walther Straram Concerts Orch./ Igor Stravinsky – Pristine Audio

The master Stravinsky himself leads a French ensemble in his first recording of the true “enfant terrible” of orchestral scores, and the restoration proves as potent as ever.

Published on June 17, 2013

STRAVINSKY: His First Recordings = The Rite of Spring; The Firebird—Suite – Walther Straram Concerts Orch./ Igor Stravinsky – Pristine Audio

STRAVINSKY: His First Recordings = The Rite of Spring; The Firebird—Suite – Walther Straram Concerts Orchestra/ Igor Stravinsky – Pristine Audio PASC 387 (CD-R), 60:36 [avail. in various formats at www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

Recording engineers Mark Obert-Thorn and Andrew Rose have collaborated in this “Year of Le Sacre” to restore the 1928 (8-12 November) and 1929 (10 May) inscriptions by the composer of The Firebird Suite and Le Sacre du Printemps, respectively.  Had we asked conductors Ernest Ansermet and Pierre Monteux – well known Stravinsky interpreters – their opinion of Stravinsky’s conducting talents, it would likely have been derogatory, since Stravinsky likely needed to have taken Nicolai Malko’s course for composers who wished to lead their own scores.  Often, Stravinsky would defend his slowed-down tempos or simplistic adjustments by stating that his own interpretation was the correct realization of his intentions!

Stravinsky must have chortled as he led the opening measures of Le Sacre du Printemps, recalling how Saint-Saens responded to the opening bassoon at the premier: “What instrument is that?” and walking out. Stravinsky’s 1929 rendition is not the first attempt at a recording, since Stokowski and Goossens had already inscribed portions of the score, more or less successfully. But Stravinsky’s own Augurs of Spring section certainly grips us with its heaving ostinati and asymmetrical, jarring accents. Given the level of the current restoration, much of the original excitement and disconcerting energy asserts itself, the ferocity of such selections as the Ritual of Abduction’s once more shedding the civilized niceties of Classicism. One can imagine the Disney artists in their collective musing about how to “translate” such primitive energy into the popular mind and coming up with volcanoes and dinosaurs. On the other hand, imagining Nijinsky’s personal wrestling with the often ungainly score to subdue it to the human form of ballet must have been monumental. The group of movements  that ends Part I: The Adoration of the Earth Spring Rounds, Games of the Rival Towns, Procession of the Sage, and Dance of the Earth – achieves an almost hysterical, pagan energy, only to “end” on an unresolved chord that inaugurates Part II: The Sacrifice.

Somehow, the now-familiar shocks of Part I seem to urge us to perceive Part II as moving faster. The string tremolos and wiry parlando in the Mystic Circles of the Young Girls holds fewer terrors for us, but the eerie qualities still assert themselves. The ensuing triad of movements selects and glorifies the “Chosen One” for ritual sacrifice; and consciously or not, Stravinsky often dips into a psychic arsenal of Russian folk tunes, often in grotesque garb and shattering sonorities. The cumulative intensity of the determined Ancients, in all their wheezy, palsied rhythmic mania, proceeds directly to the Sacrificial Dance, a propitiatory rite to the gods of fertility. Recall the salacious drawings of Wallace Smith for Ben Hecht’s Fantazius Mallare – that of the eponymous hero’s engaging in sex with the Earth itself – and you glean something of the primal, impolite tumult that Stravinsky unleashed for the world of music and Western Civilization. If even a 1929 recording can generate that kind of power, it must be good. [It’s quite amazing for such an old 78, but don’t expect a lot at either end of the frequency spectrum...Ed.]

Stravinsky employs his 1911 version of nine scenes for The Firebird ballet for French Columbia, one that incorporates the Berceuse and Finale from his later 1919 arrangement, with somewhat improvised “transitions.” The sound reproduction in The Firebird emerges quite vividly, especially in the Straram winds and brass sections. Having been supplied with the descriptive titles of the sequences, we can better follow the plot outline, and Stravinsky’s string basses certainly convey the appropriate menace he juxtaposes against the glories of the eponymous firebird. The Appearance of the Firebird and its ensuing Dance grandly involve the divided strings, harp, and shrieking, glistening woodwinds.  The Supplication of the Firebird enjoys the “Eastern” grandeur and languor Stravinsky gleaned from his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov.

More than a touch of diaphanous magic infiltrates the two scenes of the princesses, the Game of the Princesses with the Golden Apples, and the Round Dance of the Princesses. The latter seems almost a direct emotional transcription of the slow movement from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, the melodies themselves “borrowed” from the same book of Russian folk tunes that Stravinsky’s teacher had utilized in his Sinfonietta, Op. 31. Still, excepting a pedant’s objections, the essential magic tapestry proves irresistible. The big splash, the Infernal Dance of All Kashchei’s Subjects, has all the percussive and pompous vulgarity apt for his malodorous minions. We might detect some imprecision in the ensemble, but the athletic, vigorous color of the movement remains intact. The segue to the sultry Berceuse suits the occasion, and the Straram strings respond well to their slides and shifts of registration in a glowing orchestral patina. The Finale does arise rather out of the hazy blue vacuum, but the harp scale emerges well as the melody gains ever more girth and crescendo; and once the brass and tympani enter, the pageant easily suggests an apotheosis in the best Tchaikovsky tradition.

—Gary Lemco




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