STRAVINSKY Pétrouchka. Firebird Suite. Symphony in 3 Movements. Scenes de ballet. Berman/Israel PO/Bernstein (DG) – INKPOT
The Firebird Suite (1919)
Symphony in Three Movements
Scnes de ballet*
*Boris Berman piano
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Leonard Bernstein
2 discs [71:39 + 64:08] mid-price
Other pieces in this collection reviewed: The Rite of Spring
by Adrian Tan
As one explores the musical realm of Igor Stravinsky, one finds a musical genius who often transcended his own style and musical language. He championed tonal composition in the first half of the 20th century while others such as Arnold Schoenberg developed atonalism. Stravinsky’s achievments allows us to perhaps regard him as the Bach of tonality’s music at the end of a great era, or the Picasso of music at the beginning of another.
From the 18th Century harmonies in Pulcinella to the distinctive individuality in Le Histoire du soldat, the jazzy Ebony Concerto for Benny Goodman, the quirky Circus Polka for Wind Band (composed for a young elephant) to the intensity of the Rite of Spring, one can hardly find another composer in the canon that can boast of such versatility.
In 1956 he withdrew his refusal “to abdicate the rule of my ears” and set out to explore atonality and serial composition, by then, an established form. In his later works, such as the Canticum Sacrum and Elegy for JFK, he challenged himself to explore new sounds and opportunities in atonalism. However, these works never became as great as his tonal masterpieces.
What was consistently “Stravinskian” was his innovations in rhythm and the raw energy that prevails in all his music. His sense of drama thus made him most suitable to write for the stage and that is perhaps why his best compositions are amongst his ballets and stage works.
The Firebird Suite is one such ballet work, commissioned by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, that has found immortality on the concert stage as well. In fact, this was the work that started the collaboration that gave the world Petrushka and The Rite of Spring as well. Its immense popularity resulted in the publication of three suites, the first in 1911 for a huge orchestra, another in 1919 (the one featured in the recording) and a final one in 1949, which includes other dance numbers from the ballet.
The story of The Firebird is based on two Russian fairytales. The Firebird is the embodiment of goodness, decked in brilliant colours and splendour. Kashchei is the green-taloned ogre who is the representaition of evil. The two vie for the soul of the young prince Ivan Tserich who desires to free the 13 princesses from the demon’s clutches with the help of the Firebird.
The music is in seven parts but is usually performed in four sections. The Introduction is dark and eerie, picturing our Russian prince wandering through a gloomy forest. In the first 30 seconds or so in this recording, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra observes a strict pppp that is almost inaudible. My advice is: do not turn up your hi-fi to hear these beginning chords clearly or you will be in for a shock in a couple of minutes’ time. Bernstein has no qualms here in employing the full resources of the orchestra in generating the atmosphere of mystery that introduces this fantasy.
Just as the listener is lulled into the depths of gloom, a sudden trill introduces the Firebird. A masterly dramatic stroke from the composer and the conductor here. Stravinsky then goes on a frenzy of variations on the Firebird idea with a virtuosic section for the strings and winds. The Israel Philharmonic responds to this with their clean execution and a touch of mischieviousness that is quite appropriate.
In the second section, a flute melody introduces the Princesses as they perform a Round Dance. At first the music is serene but builds into a climax before subsiding again. LB chooses to go slower on this movement which in some ways stagnates the music. The orchestra capitalizes on the sweet melody and delivers a more contemplative reading of this section. As I mentioned before, the Israel Philharmonic has a certain raw sound and it is here, that this becomes a setback. Much like the Russian orchestras of old, somehow in these slower and gentler passages, the orchestra loses lustre.
However, this is made up for in the third section, the Infernal Dance of the King Kaschei. This demonic number is filled with powerful accents and syncopated rhythms that once again, the better qualities of Bernstein and this orchestra prevails. The opening theme is taken sombrely at first to give room for build-up. The dissonances and brass passages are made use of wonderfully, as the strings provide an insistent rhythmic drive. One can imagine that this would certainly be very exciting on stage and must have been one of the highlights of the entire ballet.
The suite ends with a Berceuse or a lullaby on solo bassoon, accompanied by the gentre strains of a harp. It is the spell cast by the Firebird to put the demons to sleep, but the sublime beauty of this passage will hardly put the audience to sleep. The uncomfortable dissonant chords in such a quiet passage is immensely disturbing and it enhances the mystical quality of the music.
The Finale begins with a horn solo recapitulation of the Princess theme, which is transformed into a joyful hymn of praise. The magnificent brass shine here, as LB picks a relatively quicker tempo but retains the solemnity and grandeur. This is almost a certain crowd pleaser and begs for an ovation. Well, Bernstein does have a knack for that, and more often than not, he gets what he wants.
Ptrouchka (the French form of Petrushka), subtitled a “Burlesque in 4 scenes”, has seen many arrangements simply because of the inventiveness of its thematic material, rhythmically and harmonically. Not only is this orchestral suite a popular concert work, its version for solo piano entitled Three Fragments from Petruchka has become staple in the repertoire of piano virtuosos.
Left: Stravinsky in 1911, with Nijinsky as Petrushka.
The morbid tale tells of the puppet Petruchka, the Ballerina and Moor, perhaps a Russian version of the European fairy tale of the tin soldier, but with darker undertones. The music certainly reflects this and also the many sights and sounds of the Shrovetide fair in which the story is set.
Perhaps the most recognisable track is the Danse Russe, with its semi-quaver melody, here played to perfection by the Israel Philharmonic. Bernstein never fails to remind us that this is dance music as he conjures up, even in our minds, the many opportunities in choreography and movement. Don’t forget that Bernstein himself was a composer of musicals and dance numbers, some as complicated as Stravinsky’s. His understanding of the drama therein is thus obviously inherent.
Another track very much worthy of attention is the Dance of the Ballerina, that from a militaristic sounding trumpet call is transformed into a waltz, as the ballerina dances with the evil Moor. The wind ensemble that performs this waltz plays this with a blend of mockery and sweetness. Melodies go their separate ways and out of time, becoming a distorted waltz of seduction as the Moor tries to seduce the Ballerina. This is interrupted by a furious Petruchka, but he is no match for the Moor and gets thrown out. This complicated passage is brilliantly constructed and equally well-performed on this recording, giving the listener no sense of disorganisation at all. To make difficult passages sound at ease (not easy) is perhaps one of the merits of a good orchestra.
The Death of Petruchka in the hands of the Moor is an extremely sad moment in a quiet passage told by a solo clarinet and a violin. The death of this puppet attracts the attention of the police, who enter the scene with a set of spastic repetitive notes on the bassoon. The puppeteer demonstrates that it is merely a puppet that has “died” but at the end, the ghost of Petruchka appears, an ominous ending to a sad story.
One of the few drawbacks of this DG recording is the volume at which these soft passages are recorded. It demands that one sits in a quiet room to fully experience the music. The extreme range of the orchestra’s dynamics is so wide that though it is a dramatic asset it can be quite a nuisance for the listener, in practical listening terms. However, that is the nature of the music and the way it must be performed. It is certainly not easy listening, or what LB would call Muzak, but serious stuff that requires your every attention to grasp the subtle nuances of meaning.
The 18-minute long Scnes de Ballet is a strange creature, that makes it an “encore”, if you may, at the end of this excursion of Stravinsy’s heavy duty ballet music. As some critics have put it, this is a “a solemnisation of Broadway”. Billy Rose, who commissioned the work for $5000, said it was a “great success” as it was but it would become a “sensational success” if Stravinsky let the work be touched up by Cole Porter’s orchestration. (The audacity!) Sarcastiacally, Stravinsy wired back to Rose “Satisfied with Great Success”.
by Jacques Emile Blanche.
Listening to the Pas de deux, it is possible to mistake it for a Broadway song and the way it is developed is reminiscent of such ballades. Trivial as such, the eleven-movement work ends with a final Apotheosis no less. Bernstein’s treatment of the work is appropriate in its simplicity. Perhaps the lighter subject matter trivialises the work in a sense but it is by no means a mere Broadway dance number as it has its fair share of complexities. In this way, it is quite endearing and perhaps a nice contrast to the other nerve-wrecking works on this recording.
Stravinsky’s relationship with the symphony is an odd one. I find that his major contribution to the form is his Symphony of Psalms, which is one of the greatest choral works of the 20th Century. Other than that, his Symphony in C (1938-1940) hints of neo-classicism and this Symphony Three Movements (1945) is a different cup of tea altogether.
Here is more chromaticism, and deviance from tonal centres. The energy and drive is still there, this time, not in a dance but in the much grander structure of the symphony. After hearing the bombastic works in the earlier tracks, the Israeli orchestra sounds much more tame. Although the rhythmic emphasis is there, I do not think that there is sufficient effort to give the music the direction that it begs to have. In that way, the Symphony is close to the ballet music, but here strangely enough, this work is dwarfed by the ballet suites. Maybe it is the effect of the strange coupling of pieces, but the placement of this symphony causes it to lose some of its attractiveness for me.
It is the one work which Stravinsky came closest to acknowledging some external inspiration, including that of war-time images comprising a documentary film of Japanese “scorched earth” tactics in China, footage of German soldiers marching (left) and the “rise of the allies”. In a way, the music is good enough that you do not need to know this to enjoy it. The second movement of the Symphony is certainly worth a listen. Stravinsky places a flute solo on top of some detached rhythms from the other winds and pizzicato strings, creating quite an interesting texture. The chromaticism I was talking about prevails most strongly here. At the end of the second movement, there is a short Interlude before the music moves into the Con moto. This is like a basic question-and-answer section between the winds and the strings, that ushers in the new tempo. The last movement is like the first in a way, rhythmic and more “interesting” because of the increased syncopation. Yet this way, it pales in contrast to what we have heard in the Rite.
This recording is surely not for a one-time sit through. Rather it is a fantastic bargain as a reference for excellent performances all round. The amount of music here is worth at least twice the price of this album! You may want to check out Stravinsky conducting his own music for additional insight (on Sony). Other than that, Bernstein is basically one conductor who has the rhythm IN him and together with the kind of passion he infuses into his performances, he is almost the perfect spokesman for Stravinsky.
328: 31.10.1998 Adrian Tan
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