Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite; Fireworks; Symphony No. 1 in E flat; Scherzo fantastique

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COMPOSERS: Stravinsky
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: The Firebird Suite; Fireworks; Symphony No. 1 in E flat; Scherzo fantastique
PERFORMER: St Petersburg PO/Vladimir Ashkenazy
CATALOGUE NO: 448 812-2
Ashkenazy’s survey of Stravinsky’s early orchestral works provides a salutary reminder of the extraordinary changes in his style that occurred between the years 1907 and 1911. The E flat major Symphony is pure Glazunov with snatches of Tchaikovsky for good measure – a delightful work no doubt, but hardly one that suggests the composer of genius and originality that emerged in The Firebird. More overtly Stravinskian fingerprints crop up in the two orchestral showpieces composed between these works, though the indebtedness to Dukas and Scriabin is also self-evident.

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Ironically Ashkenazy seems to be at his most convincing in the Symphony, encouraging the St Petersburg Philharmonic to play with urgency and enthusiasm throughout the work. He generates plenty of energy in Fireworks too, but the brief languorous middle section is too insipid. In the rarely recorded 1911 Firebird Suite which concludes with an incisive Infernal Dance, the orchestral playing is refined, although the ‘Dance of the Firebird’ needs to sound more mercurial.

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The same section is much more nimble and airy in Leonard Bernstein’s performance, possibly because the American opts for the better-known 1919 Suite which uses a reduced orchestration. Unfortunately neither suite provides a satisfactory substitute for the full ballet as conducted by the composer (on Sony) or Ant·l Dorati (on Decca), and this feeling is compounded by the curious excision of a bridge passage between the Infernal Dance and the Lullaby in Bernstein’s recording. Nonetheless, despite unatmospheric sound and some strange balancing of textures , Bernstein delivers a brilliant account of the score and also inspires the LSO to playing of seismic intensity in the concluding section of the Rite of Spring. Erik Levi