Stravinsky: L'Oiseau de feu - The Firebird (CD review)

Complete ballet. Also, Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Kent Nagano, London Symphony Orchestra. Virgin Classics 7243 5 61848-2.

When Igor Stravinsky premiered his Firebird ballet in 1910, it marked not only the beginning of a new phase in the composer's output, but a new direction in twentieth-century music. In fact, Stravinsky's more venerable mentors like Rimsky-Korsakov highly influenced the Firebird, and one can still hear the older composer's exotic orientalism throughout. Still, The Firebird was a doorway through which Petruchka (1910-11) and The Rite of Spring (1913) would later step. Even though Stravinsky's Rite would mark the true revolution, The Firebird contains the seminal directions in its second half with the introduction of Kashchei and especially in his "Infernal Dance" that would lead the way to more original thinking.

The composer derived several concert and ballet suites from the score, but for the best renditions of the complete work one must look to Antal Dorati's old LSO issue on Mercury, which no one has ever topped, or even Colin Davis's Concertgebouw effort on Philips. Until this one, that is. Kent Nagano's 1991 recording, which Virgin Classics re-released in the early 2000's, provides a top-of-the-line alternative in superb digital sound. Why it didn't do better upon its initial release, I don't know. Let's just be glad it is currently available at so low a price (used).

Kent Nagano
The performance is not as electrifying as with some other conductors, yet Nagano helps us negotiate the story line and all its color to the fullest. He takes the quieter passages, meaning most of the first half of the work, with care and precision to represent a world of hushed dreaminess, clearly underscoring the effects of the French impressionists of Stravinsky's day. Then, Nagano points up the great cacophonous outbursts of the second half all the more dramatically for their contrast. He infuses every note of the score with the utmost in atmosphere (and Nagano is big on atmosphere, mood, and tone) and excitement, making it among the most vivid interpretations available.

Then, too, Virgin engineers present the music in highly dynamic yet most natural-sounding audio. What's more, they give the orchestra a comfortably distanced miking position for a maximum imaging of depth as well as left-to-right stereo spread. Now, understand, some listeners will find the dynamic range (the spread between softest and loudest passages) a bit too wide for their taste; however, if you start at a comfortable volume setting (not too loud, though, or the crescendos may blow you out of your seat), you'll feel the impact and authority of the louder sections later on.

Add to the low cost (especially used) of this well-performed and well-recorded Firebird the coupling of Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments and you have the makings of a bargain. Now, if only Virgin hadn't decided to package "The Classics" line with such drab, minimalist cover art, the whole affair might have been perfect. Oh, well, it's a small loss for a big gain.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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 John 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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa