Sir Simon Rattle, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. EMI 50999 2 06876 2 5. 2-disc set.
I hope this question doesn't sound sacrilegious, but am I the only person in the world who thinks Simon Rattle did his best work years ago with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra? I mean, now that he's doing mostly live recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic, he seems to have gotten more predictable, even staid. Maybe it's just me.
Oh, well, we have recordings like this two-disc set of Stravinsky's most-popular ballets from Rattle and the CBSO to remind us how good he can be. While these may not be the absolute top recommendations for these works, they are very good, indeed, and reasonably well recorded.
Things begin with The Rite of Spring, the music that caused such a sensation when it was first performed in 1913 and along with the First World War just shortly afterwards ushered in the age of modern music. The Rite's explosive gyrations in which a young pagan girl literally dances herself to death was something of a shock to early twentieth-century audiences, but today, through repeated listening and countless imitations, no doubt, it hardly raises an eyebrow. Rattle uses the 1947 revised edition, and he handles the atmospheric end of things quite well, with a nice sense of presence between the music's more-explosive sections. In the big percussive-led interludes, though, Rattle doesn't work up quite the frenzy of Georg Solti (Decca) or Riccardo Muti (EMI), so the performance as a whole doesn't seem as exciting as it might be. Still, Rattle is no slouch, either, and you get your money's worth.
Petrushka, which Stravinsky wrote a few years earlier than The Rite and which he also revised in 1947, is another sound world altogether. It's dark and freakish in a way, the story of a puppet coming to life being rather creepy. The music alternates between showy, circus-type gypsy rhythms and the erratic pulsations of the hollow-headed creature around a brisk piano solo. Here, Rattle is at his best, capturing all the color and descriptive elements of the score that may just give nightmares to people who are afraid of dolls under their bed.
But it was The Firebird that first put Stravinsky on the map in 1910, and Rattle does well by it. It is far more Romantic and melodic than the other two ballets, lighter and airier. Rattle's interpretation is precise and concise, straightforward yet appropriately moody. The only problem, if there is one, that you mustn't under any circumstances put Antal Dorati's old Mercury recording on next to it because nothing compares. What seemed like a perfectly delightful reading by Rattle will dissolve into the merely adequate next to Dorati's magic.
Anyway, the EMI sound is firm, clean, warm, moderately distanced, sometimes mellow, yet well defined in a most natural way. I felt The Rite of Spring could have used a touch more dynamic impact and a stronger bass, but it's OK; Petrushka comes off a little too bright and forward; and The Firebird seems almost perfect until you hear the ultimate transparency of the Mercury recording I mentioned. As a filler, we get Apollo, which comes off as second-tier Stravinsky compared to the big three, although it, too, gets a refined recording. The entire set, studio recorded, is preferable sonically to most of Rattle's later live recordings in Berlin, with their vaguer acoustics.
For buyers seeking all three of Stravinsky's popular ballets, this two-disc EMI set is something to consider. However, be aware that Colin Davis also has a very nice two-disc set available at mid price on Philips, and, of course, buying all three ballets separately is still one's best bet in first-choice considerations.