Stravinsky: The Firebird, complete (CD review)

Also, Fireworks. Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony. Naxos 8.571221.

Delos Records originally released this recording of the complete Firebird ballet with Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony in 1986. Because it’s Schwarz and Delos, it means we get a typically well-controlled performance and an exceptionally clean recording. This time from Naxos, though, the disc comes at an even lower cost. Not a bad deal.

The Russian-born American composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) wrote the Firebird ballet in 1910, and along with his subsequent ballets Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913), he would forever influence the nature of symphonic music, closing out the Romantic era and ushering in what today people call the Modern period of classical music. While I doubt that Stravinsky had any idea of the ultimate impact he and others of his generation were introducing into the world of music, we’re all probably the better for it. Certainly, the Firebird shows us the beginnings of these changes, although not nearly so much as the Rite of Spring would a few years afterwards.

Stravinsky had a good thing going in The Firebird. He based the ballet on various Russian folk tales he’d read about a magical bird that could grant help or harm to those who captured him. A young prince wandering through the enchanted land of Kashchei the Immortal happens upon the bird and captures him. The bird grants the prince a magic feather in return for releasing him. From there we get an adventure involving the prince, a group of lovely young maidens, an inevitable love interest, an argument between the prince and Kashchei, the usual conflict, and a final resolution courtesy of the bird. It’s all very exotic, colorful, warmhearted, and exciting.

Maestro Schwarz approaches the score above all atmospherically. There are very few histrionics going on here but rather a measured, clear-cut reading, the dynamic scope telling the tale. The opening is so quiet, you'd think the music wasn't even playing. Yet it's all very evocative, leading through a magical introduction to the entrances of the Prince and the Firebird.

Still, when the principal characters enter the scene, they do so with appropriate mystery and excitement. The Seattle Symphony's playing helps a lot here, too, sounding both refined and skillful. The "Entrance of the Enchanted Princesses" and their play with the golden apples seem especially well done, the music characterful, spirited, and enchanting. 

One of the highlights of the score for me is the gentle "Round Dance" at its center, which Schwarz manages with elegance and grace. It’s one of the most beautiful melodies Stravinsky ever wrote, and the conductor's delicacy with and respect for the music is most telling.

"Daybreak" marks the beginning of the ballet's more energetic segments, and Schwarz is no less compelling in these lively passages than he is in the more-lyrical sections. By the time we reach the climactic "Infernal Dance," we have to admire the conductor's ability to keep all the diverse elements of the score moving forward at an engrossing clip.

This is not, however, to suggest that Schwarz's version of The Firebird displaces my favorite recording by Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra on Mercury. Dorati goes that one extra step beyond every other conductor of the work to make it a piece of sheer, intoxicating beauty, and no one may match Mercury's sound for clarity and power. Still, Schwarz comes close, and fans of the ballet should hear his interpretation at least once.

Accompanying The Firebird we find Stravinsky's Fireworks. It's a proper companion piece because it's the little work that so impressed Sergey Dyagilev that he encouraged Stravinsky to write The Firebird for his Ballet russes. Fireworks is kind of a tribute to the composer's teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who died before he could hear it. Although it's only a few minutes long, it has enough brilliance and intensity to make a lasting impression. Schwarz plays it with vitality and animation.

Noted recording engineer John Eargle made the album at the Seattle Center Opera House, Seattle, Washington in 1986 (Firebird) and 1988 (Fireworks). Much of the sound is subtle, fitting for the occasion, as The Firebird is mostly lovely, poetic music that needs all the subtlety an engineering team can afford it. There is a good midrange transparency involved, a wide dynamic range, a robust bass, plenty of strong impact when necessary, and a pleasantly ambient acoustic. Every note sounds clearly defined, yet with a natural bloom around it that reminds us of the actual environment of the concert hall. It makes for a most lifelike presentation, the orchestra never too wide, too narrow, or too one-dimensional. Indeed, there is plenty of depth to the orchestral field, further heightening our sense of reality.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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