STRAVINSKY: The Firebird – Ballet; RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Le Coq d’or – Suite – Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/ Vasily Petrenko – Onyx 4175, 75:29 (11/30/8) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

The fertile relationship of teacher and pupil has few successful parallels to rival that of Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky, especially as the music chosen by conductor Petrenko deals with literary allegory and fairy-tale. In 1906 Rimsky-Korsakov “recovered” his inspiration for composition, and he turned to a satirical fairy tale of Pushkin (1834), The Golden Cockerel, which concerns a lazy Tsar incompetent both in war and in his ability to resist the charms of the Queen of Shemakha. When Imperial censors demanded cuts of a score they saw as subversive, Rimsky-Korsakov refused and rather prepared in 1908 two orchestral excerpts to be expanded into a suite; but the composer died before the project could be realized. Pupils Maximilian Steinberg and Alexandre Glazunov, supervised by the composer’s widow, completed the orchestral suite.

Portrait Rimsky Korsakov

Rimsky-Korsakov,
by Valentin Serov

Rimsky-Korsakov utilizes his muted trumpet entry as a leitmotif, serving as a warning of danger and leading to the chromatics of the Astrologer’s music. Dodon, the tsar whose name bears a striking resemblance to the dodo bird, sends his sons to war at the first outcry of the cockerel’s alarm of attack. In the battlefield scene, the martial procession surrounded by carrion birds, Dodon finds his self-slaughtered sons. The voluptuous Queen of Shemakha then seduces Dodon. A wedding is to follow, but the Astrologer intervenes, demanding the Queen for himself. When Tsar Dodon strikes the Astrologer dead, the Golden Cockerel exacts revenge, pecking the hapless Tsar to death. What consistently enchants us throughout this blatant indictment of inept monarchy lies in the brilliance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration, rife with magical colors from strings, woodwinds, harp, brass, and battery. Petrenko (rec. 6-7 July 2017) elicits the panoply of exotic and pompous, martial effects from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic with the same eloquence we know from the old masters Constant Lambert, Albert Coates, Sir Thomas Beecham, and Sir Hamilton Harty.

In 1908 impresario Sergey Diaghilev wished to produce a Russian nationalist ballet in Paris, especially if it would portray the mythical Firebird of legend. After having approached several composers with the project—including the ever-procrastinating Liadov—Diaghilev offered the project—assembled by choreographers Alexander Benois and Mikhail Fokine—to the twenty-seven-year old Stravinsky, who consulted the same collection of Russian folk songs that helped his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov create the Op. 31 Sinfonietta on Russian Themes. Set in two tableaux, The Firebird tells of Prince Ivan who pursues the dazzling Firebird. She pleads for freedom after her capture, rewarding his mercy with a fiery feather. When Ivan discovers thirteen princesses imprisoned in an orchard of golden apples, he finds his true love, following the princess to the castle of the evil sorcerer Kashchei. Kashchei and his assorted monsters capture Ivan, but his feather talisman calls the Firebird to the rescue, lulling Kashchei and his minions to sleep. The Firebrid leads Ivan to a casket that contains the egg of Kashchei’s soul. When Ivan breaks the egg, Kashchei and his horde die, and a lovely city replaces the evil kingdom.  The other princesses now free, Ivan proceeds to marry his beloved, and the ballet ends with a wedding and coronation.

Portrait of Igor Stravinsky, by Pablo Picasso

Igor Stravinsky,
by Pablo Picasso

The opportunity to hear the long-familiar melodies and explosive effects of the Firebird Suite in their full context (rec. 5-7 October 2017) harkens us back to Ernest Ansermet and other Stravinsky acolytes. The fourteen numbers flow into each other with a suave grace Stravinsky absorbed in his long studies of the Tchaikovsky ballets. Like his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky employs (Wagnerian) leitmotifs to illuminate his cast of characters. Doubtless, many a color and harmonic parallel can be made between this score and Rimsky-Korsakov’s towering orchestral tour-de-force, Sheherazade. For three-quarters of an hour we sit mesmerized by an enchanted musical fabric as exotic and mysterious as anything woven in the Arabian Nights. If the horns and woodwinds project menace and mystery, the strings surround us with every veil the East has to offer, especially when the Firebird flutters and glides in kinetic ecstasy. Kaschchei raises the roof when he must, urging smoke and brimstone. The entire production, courtesy of Producer Andrew Cornall, scintillates the ear and imagination without a trace of artifice.

—Gary Lemco