ALBUM TITLE: Stravinsky
WORKS: The Rite of Spring
PERFORMER: Fiammetta Tarli, Ivo Varbanov (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: ICSM 006
Here are rival versions of Stravinsky’s two earliest Ballets Russes masterpieces which revealed his own individual voice. Both these coruscating works were composed at the piano, and they are all about tactile percussiveness. ‘Sonic fisticuffs’ was Stravinsky’s own phrase for the texture of Petrushka as it came to him in a dream, and the four-hand version – which he couldn’t leave off tweaking – required a further 36 years’ gestation after its orchestral premiere. All of which means that the sound-quality of a recording is crucial: here it’s brilliantly-judged in Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen’s disc, but woefully inadequate in the disc of their rivals.
Fiammetta Tarli and Ivo Varbanov play very competently, but they inhabit a soupy, over-reverberant ambiance which replaces Stravinsky’s contrasts in tone-colour with soft-focus blandness, blunting the dramatic shocks which should make this music so exhilarating. And they themselves short-change the drama: none of the figures in Petrushka are vividly characterised, and there’s little evocation of place or atmosphere. The Masqueraders seem sedate rather than crazy, and the denouement has no hint of the sinister.
To switch from this to the Apekisheva-Owen Petrushka is like emerging from subfusc gloom into a hyper-real, sunlit world. Here the contrasts are sharp, bright, and witty, and the manically-driving tempos whirl us along. These players relish both the virtuosity required, and the chance to convey comedy; the Enchantment of the second scene really is enchanting, and the dance between the Ballerina and the Blackamoor feels suitably mismatched; the death of Petrushka comes in a gorgeous little spurt of iridescence.
The Rite sorts out these rival pairs in a similar way. Tarli-Varbanov don’t help themselves by over-pedalling, but – even without that – their account would still be fatally lacking in bite and savagery. Apekisheva and Owen light up Stravinsky’s world with every phrase pellucidly clear; the precision of their playing is a delight in itself. Whether it’s conveying the beauty of the dawn, the pounding of heels on the earth, or the spell-binding moment when the girls form their mystic circles, this performance crackles with excitement.