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:


No comments:

Post a Comment

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

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. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa