ALBUM TITLE: Stravinsky • Sibelius • Chopin
WORKS: The Firebird; Greeting Prelude; Arrangement of ‘Bluebird’ Pas de deux fronm Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty; Canzonetta Op. 62a; Nocturne in A flat, Op. 32, No. 1 & Grande Valse Brillante, Op. 18 (orch Stravinksy)
PERFORMER: Bergen Phil/Andrew Litton
CATALOGUE NO: BIS-SACD 1874
Stravinsky worked hard in later life to cast his early ballets as abstract concert pieces. Listening to the Rite of Spring divorced from its rich stage imagery may reap benefits, but performing the complete Firebird without a vivid sense of the unfolding drama is more problematic. Much of the music is specifically telling, or at least reflecting, the story, especially in the sections that were cut when Stravinsky made his concert suites.
The playing on this disc from Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic is in many ways marvellous, with a good sense of pace throughout much of the ballet. Recorded sound is sensational, especially in surround, with the fanfares at ‘Daybreak’ and the ‘Magic Carillon’ really coming alive. Moreover, the arrangements by Stravinsky of pieces by Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Chopin are imaginative fillers. The caveat, though, is that elsewhere there is much excellent music-making, but not such convincing drama. All the set pieces sound fine, but their narrative thread periodically snaps.
Take the confrontation between Kastchei and Prince Ivan just before the ‘Infernal Dance’, for example. The tremolo strings swell and are answered by two beautifully phrased brass chords. It’s all very musical, but gives little sense of Kastchei’s magic, winding Prince Ivan as it pounds into his stomach and knocking him back. Without this sense of mortal peril, why should the Firebird be summoned? Concert piece or not, Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra lack no drama in their classic version on the EMI label.