WORKS: Scherzo fantastique; Zvezdolikiy; The Song of the Nightingale; The Soldier’s Tale Suite
PERFORMER: Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus/Pierre Boulez
CATALOGUE NO: 471 197-2
At first glance, this looks like a Stravinsky ragbag assembled from sessions recorded back in 1994 and 1996. As a programme, though, it works extremely well. Once over the surprise of Boulez recording the early Scherzo fantastique, inspired by Maeterlinck’s The Life of the Bee manual and reverting to restrained Glazunov-style Romanticism in its middle section, one can hardly fail to enjoy his pointillist way with so much orchestral buzzing. Gravitas strikes in the 1911 setting of Konstantin Balmont’s mystic ritual (Star-Face, as Andrew Huth translates it, is more accurate than The King of the Stars). This is an incantation waiting for an explosive apocalypse; Prokofiev provided it with his own Balmont setting They Are Seven in 1917, but here the delirious ringing of The Song of the Nightingale, inspiration for the start of John Adams’s Slonimsky’s Earbox, makes a brilliant response. Boulez, who has already recorded the opera from which Stravinsky drew the material of his symphonic poem, predictably goes for clear textures rather than garish uproar. There is instead an astonishing pre-echo of Messiaen in the busyness of the Chinese court, with luminous woodwind uncannily anticipating the electronic swoops of the ondes martenot.
The minimal later stages of the score, which often falter for lack of theatrical context, provide the perfect opportunity for Boulez’s ever-miraculous refinement. More rough-edged exuberance might not have gone amiss in the Soldier’s Tale Suite, which sounds throughout like music for a royal court rather than the klezmer-band entertainment of travelling players. Here the introspective numbers are the best, with Cleveland clarinettist Franklin Cohen and bassoonist David McGill turning the Pastorale into the much-needed heart and soul of the sequence. David Nice