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Complete ballet

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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird (original 1910 version) [40:33]
Vladimir NIKOLAEV (b. 1953)
The Sinewaveland (Homage to Jimi Hendrix) (2011) [11:54]
Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot
rec. live, 19 & 21 June 2014 (Stravinsky), 18 October 2011 (Nikolaev), S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington, USA
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
SEATTLE SYMPHONY MEDIA SSM1014 [58:21]

Igor STRAVINSKY
Petrushka (1911, rev. 1947) [35:55]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La boîte à joujoux, L. 128 (1919) (completed by André Caplet) [32:29]
Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot
rec. live, 19 & 21 June 2014 (Stravinsky), 25 September, 2 October 2015 & 5 February 2016 (Debussy), Benaroya Hall
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
SEATTLE SYMPHONY MEDIA SSM1010 [68:24]

Igor STRAVINSKY
The Rite of Spring (1911-1913) [34:31]
Alexander RASKATOV (b. 1953)
Piano Concerto ‘Night Butterflies’ (2012-2013) [28:34]
Tomoko Mukaiyama (piano)
Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot
rec. live, 20, 22 & 23 March 2014 (Raskatov), 19 & 21 June 2014 (Stravinsky), Benaroya Hall
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
SEATTLE SYMPHONY MEDIA SSM1005 [63:05]

Now in his fifth season at the helm of the Seattle Symphony French conductor Ludovic Morlot is still creating a stir. As the varied couplings on these three Stravinsky releases confirm he likes to pair familiar works with less-well-known ones; indeed, his enterprising programmes have given rise to the soubriquet Sir Mix-a-lot. His Ives came within a whisker of being included among my Recordings of the Year for 2016, and Leslie Wright has lauded Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 in his Dutilleux cycle. As for the Mahler 10 with Thomas Dausgaard, Ralph Moore made it a Recording of the Month.

The Stravinsky ballets have fared well on record, with versions from Andrew Litton (BIS) and François-Xavier Roth (ASM) among the most recent. Dominy Clements raved about the former’s Firebird (1910 version) and I much admired the latter’s Rite, coupled with the original Petrushka. Call it serendipity, but I’m currently captivated by Antal Doráti’s Decca set of all three ballets – plus Apollon Musagète and the early orchestral Scherzo fantastique – recorded with the Detroit Symphony in the early 1980s. Presto list the twofer – and the 16-bit lossless download – for just £11. Outstanding performances, sound and value make this set an obvious benchmark here.

I’ve chosen to review the ballets in order of composition, so let’s start with The Firebird, given here in its original version (1910). The first of Stravinsky’s collaborations with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes it’s a classic tale of good and evil as personified by Prince Ivan, who spares the eponymous avian, and Kastchei, whose many spells are broken when the egg that holds his soul is finally destroyed. The work brims with memorable set-pieces, all wreathed in a gorgeous Rimskian glow. Doráti’s engineer John Dunkerley adds to the sense of magic with a recording that’s spacious, detailed and dazzling in its display of peacock colours.

How do you follow that? The opening of Morlot’s Firebird, recorded live as part of a Stravinsky marathon in June 2014, starts well enough. The pulse is strong and it’s clear this conductor isn’t one to linger. That’s no bad thing in itself, but it can rob the music of essential mystery. Rhythms are taut – there’s real muscle and sinew in this reading – and the players respond well to Morlot’s swift, no-nonsense direction. In some ways he reminds me of Charles Dutoit, whose Montreal recording – Dunkerley again – is also quite clear-eyed (Decca, 1983). However, the latter generates more empathy, especially when the Firebird pleads with Ivan to release her. He and Doráti are deeply affecting at this point.

And that’s the nub of it; Morlot puts head before heart, and the fairly close recording – admirably detailed and with a fine stereo spread – reinforce that impression. Phrasing is an issue at times and I’d have preferred a rather more seamless reading. I suppose one could argue that Morlot’s Firebird looks to the future, whereas Doráti is more closely linked to the past; nothing wrong with either, of course, but as Dutoit so amply demonstrates it’s quite possible to find a middle way. That said, Morlot has his magic moments; also, the Seattle players show great agility in The Appearance of the Thirteen Enchanted Maidens, for example.

Such felicities aside, I feel there are just too many flat spots in this performance. The Round Dance is one of them, but then Daybreak – cue some lovely harp swirls – is unusually crisp and refreshing. In a game of swings and roundabouts Morlot’s Wagner tubas pale beside Doráti’s, but even at a sensible volume Seattle’s mighty bass drum could cause some structural damage. And while that’s undeniably exciting – those fabled Telarc thwacks leap to mind – such highlighting can be counter-productive in the long run. Add to that Morlot’s tendency to overdrive the music at its dramatic nodes, which flattens aural perspectives and blurs inner detail. That said, the finale is seismic, the applause tumultuous.

Morlot’s Firebird certainly has flashes of brilliance, but there’s little sense of a developing narrative. Listening to Dutoit and Doráti I’m keenly aware of an evolving performance, of a gradual accumulation that turns the General Rejoicing into a proper – and proportionate – apotheosis. In Morlot’s hands that final section could almost have been culled from another performance, such is the sudden arc of electricity it produces. If you like the occasional jolt, this Firebird could be the one for you; but if you prefer something more consistent and colourful, go for Doráti or Dutoit. The latter, products of Decca’s last golden age, are much better engineered as well.

The Sinewaveland, by the Russian composer Vladimir Nikolaev, is billed as a tribute to one of Seattle’s most famous sons, the rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix. The work’s panoply of drumbeats, coupled with stretches of straight, inoffensive lyricism, means it’s by no means ‘difficult’ or relentless in character; indeed, I struggled to discern anything especially striking – musical or otherwise – in this Seattle commission. As for the booklet note, it’s a depressingly familiar attempt to ‘talk up’ a piece that’s scarcely worth the effort involved. The live recording, made in 2011, is unexceptional. There is no applause.

Stravinsky’s second ballet for Diaghilev features the Russian puppet Petrushka, best known in the English-speaking world as the belligerent, wife-beating Punch. At the 1830 Shrovetide Fair in St Petersburg the Charlatan brings three puppets to life. The ballerina rejects Petrushka in favour of the Moor who, when challenged, kills his jealous rival. At the end Petrushka returns as a ghost, only to die a second time. Morlot and Doráti opt for the 1947 revision, which omits a number of instruments, including the glockenspiel, cornets and tenor drum. Even in this form the score retains much of the tingling exoticism that makes the original so memorable.

Within minutes it’s clear Morlot’s lively and propulsive Petrushka is going to be rather special. He relishes the work’s lightly motoric elements – the fast patter that haunts the score like an idée fixe – and revels in its darker ones. Yes, Morlot’s initial evocation of the Shrovetide Fair isn’t as polished as some, but things do settle down thereafter. The rather ghostly barrel-organ is beautifully done and there’s some lovely, characterful woodwind playing as well. Perhaps more important, given my criticism of Morlot’s Firebird, is that he finds – and sustains – a strong narrative. Not only that, he creates a sense of theatre, and that’s rare in ballet recordings.

This is the kind of incisive and eventful performance that shows Stravinsky at his very best. Even more pleasing is the level of detail, and what feels like an airier, more congenial recording; that allows timbres to register more clearly and faithfully (the low brass especially). Happily, Morlot resists the urge to press ahead, and the effect is frankly liberating. And what fabulous trumpet playing and piquant textures, with a bass drum that’s all the more impressive for being so discreetly deployed (and recorded). The uncertain start to the first tableau is more than made up for by an immersive middle two – lots of delectable dances – and a very atmospheric finale. There is no applause.

After that disappointing Firebird this Petrushka is a reminder that Morlot and his orchestra – not to mention the SSM recording – can rub shoulders with the best. However, those who prefer a warmer sound and like a reading that underlines Stravinsky’s debt to the 19th century should hear Doráti’s recording, superbly engineered by James Lock. And those curious to hear the 1911 version should investigate Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic on that orchestra’s own label. Having acquainted myself with the 24/96 download from eClassical I can only endorse Leslie Wright’s glowing review.

Morlot’s substantial filler is Debussy’s rarely heard ballet La boîte à joujoux (The Toy Box), based on a children’s story by the artist André Hellé (1871-1945). The work had a long and difficult gestation, and Debussy’s orchestration of the piano draft was unfinished at the time of his death in 1918. Achille-Claude’s friend, the composer André Caplet (1878-1925), completed the job and the ballet was premiered a year later. It’s a charming tale of three puppets – (Punch)inello, the Doll and the Soldier – who come to life at night and lead a life of adventure and pastoral bliss before returning to the toy shop from whence they came.

For comparison I’ve chosen Yan Pascal Tortelier’s 1988 recording with the Ulster Orchestra, coupled with Ravel’s Ma Mère l'Oye (Chandos). Vividly recorded by Ralph Couzens it’s a nostalgic reminder of the label’s ‘house sound’ at the time. The SSM recording is somewhat leaner, as is Morlot’s generally idiomatic performance. I really warmed to Tortelier’s light touch and supple rhythms, alongside which Morlot can seem a trifle bland. There’s no applause. Incidental delights aside, La boîte à joujoux is hardly a neglected masterpiece, and it’s unlikely to enter the standard ballet rep any time soon.

The Rite of Spring, a wild and ancient ceremony that ends in a chilling sacrifice, celebrated its centenary in 2013. At the time I listened to and/or reviewed so many recordings of the piece that I felt utterly fatigued. And still they come, Morlot’s the latest in a conveyor belt of new contributions to the catalogue. The start to Part 1, The Adoration of the Earth, is fairly evocative, with a decent pulse and levels of detail; there’s some fine bassoon playing, too. The young maidens are paraded to a big, powerfully defined beat and the bass drum in The Ritual of the Abduction will give your woofers a workout.

As before the recording is quite close – especially noticeable in Spring Rounds – and that means climaxes can be a tad uncomfortable. Surprisingly Morlot pulls his punches in The Procession of the Sage – it seems almost metronomic in its careful progress – and The Dance of the Earth isn’t as febrile as it can be. Things improve slightly in the introduction to Part 2, The Sacrifice. Morlot’s response to The Mystic Circles of the Young Maidens is certainly ear-pricking – a welcome respite from all that atavism – with colours and timbres very well caught. A little too relaxed perhaps, but that makes The Glorification of the Chosen One seem all the more shattering in its impact. The applause erupts almost on the last note, a rather tiresome trend.

There are so many first-rate recordings of this iconic score, chief among them classic versions from Claudio Abbado, Pierre Boulez, Sir Colin Davis, Bernard Haitink, Sir Charles Mackerras, Riccardo Muti and Stravinsky himself. And yes, we mustn’t overlook the Doráti, which combines great musicality with a truly sumptuous recording (James Lock again). Among the more recommendable Rites I’ve reviewed in recent years are those from Jaap van Zweden (Exton), Iván Fischer (Channel) and, on video, the incomparable Leonard Bernstein (ICA Classics). Musically and sonically all three are far preferable to this newcomer.

Morlot’s filler, Alexander Raskatov’s Piano Concerto ‘Night Butterflies’, doesn’t appear to have been recorded before. The composer, Moscow born, emigrated first to Germany and then to France following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He’s probably best known for his opera A Dog’s Heart, an ENO production of which was warmly received by Colin Clarke in Seen and Heard. Dominy Clements has reviewed discs of Raskatov’s liturgical music and The Sound of Venice, which features one of his shorter pieces. And then there’s his completion of Schnittke’s Ninth Symphony, recorded by Owain Arwel Hughes and the Cape Philharmonic (BIS).

The intriguingly titled ‘Night Butterflies’, written for the Japanese pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama, was a joint commission by the Seattle Symphony and the Dutch Residentie Orkest. According to Elena Dubinets’s fascinating liner-note these 12 miniatures were inspired by an evening visit to a butterfly greenhouse. On first acquaintance I was reminded of Messiaen, whose obsession with birds and birdsong helped forge a highly individual sound world. Despite the score’s general weight and density it has moments of surprising lift, the now fierce, now fibrillating piano part superbly realised. Very immediate sound and wide dynamics complete a fine performance of this substantial and interesting work. There is no applause.

Some good performances mixed in with some decidedly average ones; a tough call for CD buyers, but downloaders can lift out the best bits.

Dan Morgan




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