Rimsky-Korsakov: Le Coq d’Or Suite; Stravinsky: The Firebird

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko (Onyx)

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Rimsky-Korsakov Le Coq d’Or Suite; Stravinsky The Firebird
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko
Onyx ONYX 4175
75:29 mins

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The orchestral suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel is no rarity, but has the master magician’s last utterance ever been presented before as a prelude to pupil Stravinsky’s first ballet? That eerie tritone of the dangerous bird’s final flourish finds immediate echoes in the magic garden of ogre Kashchey, into which the firebird soon enters with Prince Ivan in hot pursuit. There’s an exoticism in the ballerina’s eastern pleading that connects her directly with the wily Queen of Shemakha; and in terms of the performances, spectacularly characterful Liverpool woodwind connect the two, from the first free arabesques of principal clarinet to the bassoon in the firebird’s lullaby.

Both Korsakov’s suite and Stravinsky’s complete ballet, though, have a flaw: too much languor before more lurid action gets under way. Atmosphere carries the middle movements of the suite, but in the first half of The Firebird Vasily Petrenko’s preference for slow tempos over flexible drama might make for fidgety audiences in the concert hall, and even the beautiful Round Dance of the Princesses is just a bit too stodgy. It just about works on CD, and then all hell’s let loose in perfectly-balanced uproar. The brass at their most outlandish ricochet off the walls of Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall, go glissando-crazy as in no other recording I know, and help to make the Infernal Dance as thrilling as it can be. Why did the timpani add the brass’s block chords just before the end, though? Never mind; this is demonstration-quality sound for a very fine orchestra.

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David Nice