CD 1: The Firebird (1909) [47:25], Scherzo à la russe
(for jazz band) (1944) [3:51], Four Studies (1928) [9:39], Scherzo
à la russe (orchestral version) (1945) [3:59] CD 2: Apollo
[30:06], Le Sacre de Printemps [34:54] CD 3: Petrushka
(1947 version) [35:04]; Symphony in Three Movements [21:29];
Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920) [9:48] CD 4: Pulcinella
(1919) [38:55]; Suite No 1 (1925) [4:50]; Suite No 2 (1921)
[6:01]; Ragtime (1918) [4:32]; Ebony Concerto [9:04]; Agon -
Peter Donohoe (piano) Elaine Donohoe (piano); Felix Kok, Jeremy Ballard (violins); Peter Cole (viola); Ulrich Heinen (cello); John Tattersdill (double-bass); Robert Johnston (harp); Jennifer Smith (soprano); John Fryatt (tenor); Malcolm King (bass) London Sinfonietta, Berliner Philharmoniker, Northern Sinfonia, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle
rec. 16-17 October 1987, 19-21 December 1987, 30 April-1 May 1987, 3-4 October 1986, Arts Centre, University of Warwick, 20-22 September 2007, Philharmonie, Berlin, 28-29 March 1977 & 3 January 1978, Henry Wood Hall, Northern Sinfonia Centre, Newcastle upon Tyne, 3 January 1987, CTS Studios, Wembley, London, 9-15 July and 8-12 August 1995, Symphony Hall, Birmingham. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 2 42754 2 [4 CDs: 61:11 + 65:10 + 66:43 + 70:46]
This four disc set contains Rattle’s recordings of Stravinsky’s
orchestral works, recorded with some of the world’s best orchestras.
This is by no means complete; there are some omissions, such
as the Concerto for Piano with Winds, Fireworks and
Chant du Rossignol, to name only a few. However, this remains
a rich collection which is attractively presented in a double-CD
sized box with well-written sleeve-notes. It’s one of a number
of Rattle box sets which includes volumes for American music,
Bartok and Szymanowski.
The set begins with The Firebird, a magical fantasy tale with wonderfully colourful orchestration. It demonstrates Stravinsky’s imaginative use of musical resources. The CBSO plays magnificently, with some wonderful transitions between the sections and rich, sumptuous melody lines. The solo passages are clear and well balanced, and the work is paced in such a way that a sense of direction is maintained. The music flows from section to section with a cogent sense of narrative. This is a dramatic performance which shows the individual and collective talents of the members of this orchestra. The dance sections take on Stravinsky’s characteristic rhythmic energy, while the exotic instrumentation gives a feeling of strange distant lands and inspires the imagination.
The Scherzo à la Russe, composed in 1944, was written in America as a result of a commercial commission. The original version, for jazz band, uses a range of instruments including saxophones, piano, percussion, brass and a small string section. An orchestral version, also heard here, was made a year later. The two versions provide an interesting comparison and underscore the importance of instrumental colours in Stravinsky’s music. The Four Studies, orchestrated in 1928 and taken from three earlier pieces for string quartet and a study for pianola. These charming miniatures have resonances of the techniques and sounds used in both the Rite of Spring, and especially in Petrushka.
Apollo is one of Stravinsky’s more classical works, and the opening has a remarkably traditional and American feel. Composed in 1928 for the Library of Congress and based on the story of the God, Apollo, this string orchestra work is based around 19th century French ballet. The scoring is sumptuously rich, and the solo lines give a wonderful contrast in texture. This is a charming performance, which captures the elegance of the style and has a sense of exquisite indulgence.
The second disc includes Le Sacre de Printemps, undoubtedly Stravinsky’s most well-known work. Rattle does not hurry the opening, and the result is a sense of well-judged containment, emphasising the rhythmic tensions. This pacing means that there is room for additional drama in the more frantic sections, and Rattle does not fail to deliver. The Jeu de Rapt is full of earthy energy, and the wonderful dissonances in the following section are beautifully executed. Part Two is equally dramatic, and the pervading sense of energy captures the Pagan earthiness of Stravinsky’s music. This is one of the most enjoyable renditions of this work I have heard for a long time. The pacing is excellent and the sound is remarkably clear and well balanced, with all the lines coming through successfully, including the middle-range woodwind parts. Rattle is already established as one of the world’s leading conductors, but if ever there was a suitable test piece, this would be it, and he passes with flying colours.
Petrushka is a colourful tableau of fairgrounds and imaginative characters. Folk melodies and adventurous harmonies sit side by side, creating a strong dynamic between reality and fantasy. This is a bright performance, with excellent playing from all sections and some enjoyable woodwind solos. Composed in 1911 for the Ballets Russes, this is the 1947 revised version, which uses a slightly smaller orchestra than the original. Placed at the beginning of CD 3, one is able to approach the music without it being overshadowed by the dramatic end of The Rite of Spring, allowing the intricate detail, which Rattle treats with so much respect, to come through. This is an exhilarating performance which draws the listener along on a roller-coaster ride of adventures.
The Symphony in Three Movements is another exciting Stravinskian adventure, with a dazzling first movement which has strong rhythms and moments of driving toccata-style accompaniment. Composed during the Second World War, the work was first performed by the New York Philharmonic in 1945. Stylistically, this music combines the earlier feel of the Diaghilev Ballets with newer compositional directions; the rhythmic dynamism is retained but the harmonic language has a more modern feel. The central movement is neo-classical with a lightness of touch, while the final movement is once again explosive with an elegant energy and vibrant orchestral colours.
The third disc ends with the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, heard here in its original 1920 version. This recording by the Berlin Philharmonic was made in 2007, some twenty years after most of the other recordings in this boxed set. A forward-looking work, scored for 24 wind instruments, and making use of some of the more unusual extended family members, such as the alto flute, and alto clarinet. The work is said to have come from sketches of earlier works, and contains some thematic links to The Rite of Spring, as well as some distinct folk elements. This is a fine performance with excellent balance between the instruments, demonstrating the timbral contrasts between the bright, high pitched instruments - such as clarinets, oboes and trumpets - and the mellower lower pitched instruments such as alto flute, cor anglais and bassoon. The final chorale serves as a poignant tribute to Debussy, who died two years earlier.
The final disc opens with Pulcinella, in which Stravinsky directly quotes earlier composers, such as Pergolesi, and some of the movements take on more of a sense of arrangement than composition. This recording was made by the Northern Sinfonia in the late 1970s and sounds a little dated in comparison with the other recordings here. It still has a sense of Stravinsky giving new life to earlier material, and is performed with a sense of energy. The singers (Jennifer Smith, John Fryatt and Malcolm King) are consistently excellent throughout. The two Suites for small orchestra were composed in reverse order - the second was written in 1921 and the first was written four years later. The movements take on distinct characters, with Suite No. 1 drawing on national styles and Suite No. 2 based on dance movements. Each of the pieces is short and designed for children, with the material traced back to earlier easy piano duets. These charming pieces are well presented here, with a spirit of light-hearted fun.
Ragtime is an early neo-classical work, dating from 1918. Its material is based on the popular ragtime style of Scott Joplin and his contemporaries; Joplin died a year before this was written. A further investigation of Jazz styles, the Ebony Concerto was composed for Woody Herman and features the clarinet as a solo instrument within a jazz band line-up. A wonderful fusion of jazz and Stravinskian modernism, this is a fascinating piece which is performed convincingly here.
The disc comes to a close with excerpts from Agon, a ballet written in 1957 which made use of serial techniques. Despite the departure from neo-classicism, the orchestration retains a strong sense of the identity Stravinsky created in his earlier works, with bold instrumental colours and punchy rhythmic motifs.
This is an excellent set, which maintains its high quality throughout. The collection of repertoire gives a strong overview of Stravinky’s works, from the staples of his output to some lesser-known works, and Rattle’s interpretation delivers the music with flair and panache. An essential collection for any CD library, this is not to be missed.