WORKS: The Firebird; Fireworks; Four Studies for Orchestra
PERFORMER: Chicago SO/Pierre Boulez
CATALOGUE NO: 437 850-2 DDD
Boulez’s readings of the last decade are often warmer, more relaxed than his early ones, and broadly these performances fit that mould. Just occasionally, though, I felt this complete Firebird to be a bit icy; but Boulez could never be as Romantic as, say, Rattle on EMI. For almost half an hour, indeed, I needed to turn up the volume more than usual, the general natural balance, using the 4D Audio Recording system, occasionally seeming on the recessed side. But then the Magic Carillon and the appearance of Kashchei’s monsters suddenly overwhelmed me: a splendid moment, not least because it both surprises and seems perfectly integrated.
From a magical and lugubrious ‘Introduction’ to a ferocious ‘Infernal Dance’, this performance in fact offers many insights. The playing is marvellous, with splendidly characterised and well polished solos, incisive ensemble attack, and a sustained brilliance without brashness. And although even Boulez can’t disguise the essentially episodic nature of this work, he manages to bring a typically thoughtful, but never too obviously calculated sense of tension to the balance of sections; there’s a strong overall feeling about the structure, as well as expert attention to timbral light and shade.
This almost ideal combination of remarkable orchestral virtuosity and intelligent, fresh thinking makes the ‘fillers’ feel really substantial too. Richard Taruskin’s scholarly but highly readable booklet notes provide a significant gloss on, for example, The Firebird ’s debt to the Russian tradition. Highly recommended. Keith Potter