SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

STRAVINSKY: The Firebird (complete ballet); Greeting Prelude; Arrangements of TCHAIKOVSKY: Pas-de-deux; SIBELIUS: Canzonetta; CHOPIN: Nocturne in A-flat; Grande Valse Brilliante – Bergen Philharmonic Orch./ Andrew Litton – BIS

Rather smooth and refined, but always convincing, and with some fine fillers to boot.

Published on April 27, 2012

STRAVINSKY: The Firebird (complete ballet); Greeting Prelude; Arrangements of TCHAIKOVSKY: Pas-de-deux from The Sleeping Beauty; SIBELIUS: Canzonetta, Op. 62a; CHOPIN: Nocturne in A-flat, Op. 32, No. 1; Grande Valse Brilliante, Op. 18 – Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/ Andrew Litton – BIS multichannel SACD 1874, 71:40 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:

The Firebird is of course the one that started it all; after this friends began to intimate that the composer was on the verge of great celebrity, and they were not wrong. And it is odd, that after all the trouble the composer took in his revisions, that he ended up not getting one red cent from royalties (one of the reasons for the creation of the 1945 Suite), easily his most played work worldwide, even though this first collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky would produce some other rather noted works—to break into severe understatement.

As mentioned above, there are other versions of this work, all created by the composer. The original 1910, given here, is heavily romantic and luxuriant in concept, almost impressionistic in spots. In 1911, seeing the need for a more manageable work for the concert hall, Stravinsky issued the first Suite, which severely cut the work but did little to reduce the forces needed for the complete ballet. 1919 saw the appearance of the second and most popular of the reductions, making it the most preferable for the modern symphony orchestra, and requiring little outside of normal forces for performance. In 1945 the composer returned to the work for the last time, essentially for copyright purposes and using the most music from the original score, and he even recorded it for Columbia Records in 1967—his last recording for them.

I have kept only three recordings of the complete ballet in my collection—Colin Davis and the Royal Concertgebouw, Seiji Ozawa and the Orchestre de Paris, and one SACD, Robert Craft’s with Philharmonia from 1996. With this entry Andrew Litton joins the elite hi-def recordings. Any Litton recording is going to be well-executed, well-thought out, and immaculately performed—this one is no different. But Litton also emphasizes the romantic nature of the music and therefore softens the edges considerably. This has plusses and minuses, but I do miss the extra edge that Craft brings to his recording, which generally speaking has slightly more clarity and focus than this one, which is often somewhat muddy in the middle register, and sounds recorded at a distance. Nonetheless, Litton has a formidable voice in this work, and his shaping of the various sections is effective and consistent, unlike Ozawa, who revels in some amazingly vibrant colors but often fails to connect the dots.

The fillers are interesting but not mandatory; Stravinsky was commissioned by Diaghilev pre-Firebird for two pieces for the Ballet Russes that eventually became incorporated into the Michel Fokine ballet Chopiniana (later Les sylphides), though eventually other music and orchestrations were substituted. The remaining works were also created for performing situations and make for an interesting footnote to the composer’s other more well-known work.

All in all a laudatory release, coming from a known conductor who rarely disappoints.

—Steven Ritter

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