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July/August 2012

STRAVINSKY The Firebird. Greeting Prelude Andrew Litton, cond; Bergen PO BIS SACD-1874 (SACD: 71240)

Stravinsky Orchestrations: TCHAIKOVSKY Bluebird Pas de deux. SIBELIUS Canzonetta. CHOPIN Nocturne in Ab, op. 32/1. Grande Valse Brilliante, op. 18

STRAVINSKY Le Sacre du printemps. Firebird Suite (1919). Scherzo á Ia Russe. Tango – lván Fischer, cond; Budapest Fest O ‘ CHANNEL CS SA 32112 (SACD: 63:10)

The BIS CD contains a fine, well-calculated performance of The Firebird, suitably energetic and/or relaxed as called for. Orchestral solos are delicate and lovely; they are presented with stunning clarity, with every detail audible—or at least more than I have heard in the past (I’m sorry to find that I have no score). The players are of a high caliber; however, there don’t seem to be enough of them: The lushness of a giant string section, de rigueur for this ballet, is absent, making climaxes a bit tight and hard. I’m not sure how much the acoustic of Bergen’s Grieg Hall contributes to the problem; those gorgeous solos are wrapped in friendly warmth. They do offer some compensation, making a few easygoing passages (which often come across as mere fill) more interesting than usual.

In direct contrast to the BIS F irebird, the suite on Channel Classics is purely sensual. The playing is every bit as fine, but we no longer notice exquisite solos, exact tuning, and orchestral precision. Instead, we wallow in the opening bass sonorities, received as much in the gut as in the ears, and revel in huge, billowing climaxes, heightened by what could pass for a hundred strings. Is it as accurate, as faithful to the score as the BIS? Perhaps not, but it is more faithful to the ballet, to the very concept of The Firebird; this time I don’t care that I lack a score. I am reminded of checking a proposed route on MapQuest and on Google Maps: Google’s algorithm carefully routed the driver around a large construction project, staying close to the through road, taking perhaps 10 extra minutes; MapQuest offered an entirely new route, taking only five extra minutes. The answer is not always in the details. Is the Channel Classics recorded sound better than that on BIS? No, just different. If accuracy and detail are what you want, BIS is a clear winner; if emotion, Channel Classics. SACD clarifies the BIS sound even further, and surround sound has the listener floating in front of the orchestra, without losing any of the precise details (as so many multichannel recordings do). Channel Classics benefits only slightly from SACD, but surround sound engulfs the listener in the orchestra, upping the excitement another notch. For the interesting comparisons, you might want to hear both. It’s possible to get the best of both worlds, however, as long as you don’t demand the complete ballet: the Concertgebouw’s Firebird Suite on its own label, which is also an SACD.

Most recordings today treat Le Sacred du printemps as merely an orchestral showpiece; Iván Fischer’s is a very musical, very dramatic performance, often slow and thoughtful, which gives the impression of avoiding the blockbuster aspects of the score, although it never backs off at climactic moments. It reminds me of Robert Craft’s London Symphony recording on Naxos, and—going way back—Pierre Boulez’s Nonesuch LP. As was the case with them, this performance is telling a story, and I can visualize the Joffrey Ballet’s reconstruction of Nijinsky’s original choreography. After a recent run of machine-like performances on disc (Jansons, Salonen), I find this totally winning. The recorded sound (Palace of Arts, Budapest, December 2010) is just like that of the F irebird Suite: warm, reverberant, and exciting, with a stupendous bass drum, but not always as clear as one might want. All in all, this is one of the finest Sacre recordings, and I recommend it highly.

These two discs vie for your attention with unusual fillers. BIS’s Greeting Prelude is pleasant if nothing special, but its Stravinsky arrangements for the ballet are fine, interesting choices. It’s good to have the complete Bluebird sequence—often heard in bits and pieces—in one place. I’ve never encountered the Sibelius transcription before; it’s for two clarinets, four horns, harp, and double bass. The two Chopin arrangements were commissioned by Diaghilev in 1909, to stretch the ballet Chopiniana into what would become Les Sylphides, but other orchestrations have since taken their place. Channel Classics’ Scherzo á la Russe is no novelty, and Stravinsky’s Tango, orchestrated by Felix Guenther, is a dud. No matter: Fischer has already sold me on his disc.

James H. North