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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Petrushka (1910-11 version) [35.33]
Jeu de cartes (1936-7) [22.18]
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre/Valery Gergiev
rec. January 2014 (Petrushka) & Decemeber 2009 (Cartes), Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg
Hybrid SACD/CD Surround 5.1 & Stereo; reviewed in surround
MARIINSKY MAR0594 SACD [57.51]

I liked this disc less than my colleague Dave Billinge did, but it’s a definite step up from Gergiev’s recent LSO Live recording of The Firebird. That sounded tired, as though the LSO were worn out at the end of a long tour. There is no danger of that in Petrushka, with the Mariinsky playing this music on their home turf, and the orchestra sound great throughout. All of the ballet’s colourful elements are brought to life very effectively, particularly in the second Shrovetide Fair scene, with characterful dances for the wet nurses, mummers and gypsies, and a suitably lolloping dancing bear. They capture effectively the wheezy feel of the squeezebox when the showman first reveals the puppets, and the wind solos, so important to this ballet’s scenario, are all done very well.

There are two problems, though. The first is the recording, which sounds very close. There isn’t much bloom, it’s boxy, with an oddly recessed piano, and the whole feels quite clumsily produced, which is very unlike these (normally excellent) Mariinsky recordings. The second problem is Gergiev’s direction, which often sounds quite workaday. The scene in Petrushka’s cell, for example, is pretty uneventful, and the famous Russian dance at the end of the first scene could really do with having more vigour and edge injected into it. We have a right to expect much more from this company.

That said, all is not lost. The sense of “otherness” to the Moor’s music – how long before he becomes another victim of cancel culture?! – is conveyed very effectively, as is his lopsided waltz with the ballerina, and the strings manage a wonderfully eerie shudder at Petrushka’s death.

Even though he plays the 1947 revision, my standard for Petrushka has long been Simon Rattle’s Birmingham recording, which sounds great and thumps with energy. It sounds odd to be recommending an English orchestra and conductor over a Russian team in music like this, but your ears would agree if you heard the comparison.
 
Jeu de Cartes is much better. Taped four years before Petrushka, the recording sounds much more naturally balanced and more comfortable on the ear, the trumpets particularly well integrated into the soundscape. It helps that the orchestra is smaller and that, therefore, the lightness of the texture is much more apparent, really dancing when Petrushka slightly lumbers. There is poise and elegance to the playing, which really suits Stravinsky’s neoclassical phrasing, and Gergiev shows himself to be uncommonly well attuned to the composer’s open elegance.

So there are much better Petrushkas out there, but for Jeu de Cartes this isn’t at all bad.

Simon Thompson

Previous reviews: Dave Billinge ~ Dan Morgan



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