A magnificent Firebird in state of the art CD sound.

STRAVINSKY: The Firebird; NIKOLAEV: The Sinewaveland – Homage to Jimi Hendrix – Seattle Sym. Orch./Ludovic Morlot – Seattle Symphony Media SSM1014, 58:32 *****:

This CD is another example of the superb recordings and performances that have become a signature of the Seattle Symphony’s recordings under the leadership of Ludovic Morlot. Their recent Mahler 10th Symphony, the three CDs surveying the orchestral works of Henri Dutilleux have defined the best in current audiophile technology and performance. There’s a vibrant immediacy and musical presence to their sound that vividly captures these live performances.

Despite Igor Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) title as the apostle of modernism in his time, popularity of his output among audiences in the ensuing 50 years since his death has waned. But his three early ballets, and a few neoclassical pieces have stood the test of time. While much of Stravinsky’s music tends towards structural and stylistic innovations (pounding, irregular rhythms, pungent harmonies and musical disruption held together by persistent tempos), his three ballets (The Firebird, Petrushka, Rite of Spring) add memorable melodies, an element of fantasy and  orchestral brilliance that enchant contemporary audiences.

The Firebird (1910) exists at the intersection of French Impressionism and Russian Romanticism.  The young Stravinsky benefitted from the Russian-French connection that started in the late 19th century when Russia and France signed a secret military pact. Debussy’s visit to Russia in the late 1800’s introduced him to the passionate and colorful orchestral palette of Rimsky-Korsakov. In turn, Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole became a favorite of Russians, including Stravinsky. The Russian impresario, Serge Diaghilev, living in Paris in the early 20th century, began to sponsor concerts of Russian music. Desiring to expand his presentation to ballet, he heard Stravinsky’s early work Fireworks, and commissioned him to write music about folk legend of the Firebird with choreography by Michel Folkine.

The barely discernible opening basses set a quiet scene of the Enchanted Garden where Prince Ivan pursues a dancing Firebird and catches her. There’s a lightness in this scene and the following pleas of the Firebird to be released that demonstrates Morlot’s mastery of French Impressionism. In return, the Prince gets a fiery feather which he takes to an orchard full of golden apples, where he encounters 13 princesses, and falls in love with one of them. The Round Dance of the Princesses is a quietly beautiful interlude. The Princesses lead Ivan to the castle of Katchei, where the evil guardian’s monsters capture Ivan. There’s a palpable sense of evil, darkness and violence to this scene.

But Ivan summons the Firebird, and she lulls Katchei and his minions to sleep, but not before their dramatic infernal dance. Ivan is led by the Firebird to a casket that contains an egg that contains Katchei’s soul. He breaks the egg, and the evil kingdom is replaced by a splendid city. The final wedding scene is one of Stravinsky’s most moving moments, and the audience reacts with a torrent of applause.

The disturbingly inane discmate, Russian composer Vladimir Nikolaev’s (b. 1951) The Sinewaveland: Homage to Jimi Hendrix was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony as part of their Sonic Evolution series. Nikolaev admits “my path into serious music opened up with rock music rather than Mozart or Beethoven.” It’s a shock to hear glissando strings follow the end of The Firebird. The following mishmash of dissonant chords, drumbeats, an interlude of impressionistic woodwind and percussive meanderings, and “radiant triadic chords in the strings that summon a gorgeous world of imaginary visions” that make no musical sense. I’m not an expert on the music of Jimi Hendrix, but the little I’ve heard doesn’t resemble this work. Nikolaev should listen to Mozart and Beethoven more often.

The five stars is for The Firebird – a magnificent performance in glorious sound. Forget about its discmate.

—Robert Moon