Stravinsky: The Firebird; The Rite of Spring; Persephone

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Stravinsky
LABELS: RCA Victor Red Seal
WORKS: The Firebird; The Rite of Spring; Persephone
PERFORMER: Stephanie Cosserat (narrator), Stuart Neill (tenor), San Francisco Girls Chorus, Ragazzi – The Peninsula Boys Chorus, San Francisco Symphony & Chorus/Michael Tilson Thomas
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 68898 2
This box presents a triple-bill of Stravinsky’s ballet scores, one per disc, though offered at three for the price of two. The outstanding reading is of the opulent late-Romantic The Firebird, in which Tilson Thomas obtains magnificent orchestral playing – led by an especially refined string section – captured in first-rate sound. Only in a few places, like the ‘Entreaty of the Firebird’, does the tempo seem self-indulgently slow.

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The Rite of Spring, that great classic of modernism, has almost equal precision and clarity of sound (the woodwind perhaps a little too backward), but is more prone to loss of momentum, for example at the opening of Part II. The result is still impressive, but curiously uninvolving. Most disappointing is the chastely neo-classical ‘melodrama’ Persephone, which is marred by a robust and unlyrical solo tenor, routine choral singing, and, this time, speeds which are consistently too fast – as if in an attempt to emulate the 45-minute timing on the printed score rather than the 55 of Stravinsky’s own recording.

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In fact, that recording, in Vol. 10 of the Sony Stravinsky Edition, is perhaps too relaxed in tempo, and also has a far from satisfactory tenor soloist: a pity it is the only other version of this Cinderella of the composer’s output currently available. However, Stravinsky’s early Sixties recordings of The Firebird and The Rite still have unique authority, demonstrating, despite occasionally rocky orchestral playing, consistently sharp characterisation and irresistible drive. Tellingly, unlike these new performances, they fit comfortably on to a single disc. Anthony Burton