STRAVINSKY:  The Rite of Spring.  Petrushka.  The Firebird Ballet.  Orpheus.
Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orch/./London Symphony Orch/Sir Colin Davis, cond. (Orpheus)

PHILIPS 464 744 (2 CDs) (B-M) (ADD)  TT:  147:03
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STRAVINSKY:  The Rite of Spring. Petrushka. (Philadelphia Orch/Riccardo Muti, cond.  Pulcinella.  Suite No. 1.  Suite No. 2. (Yvonne Kenny, soprano; Robert Tear, tenor; Robert Lloyd, bass/Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner, cond.  Danses Concertantes (Los Angeles Chamber Orch/Sir Neville Marriner, cond.
EMI DOUBLE FFORTE 74305 (2 CDs) (B-M) (ADD) TT: 66:16 & 69:49
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Two intriguing twin-CD Stravinsky issues, one returning to the catalog some of the finest recordings of Stravinsky's three big ballets, the other a reminder of what might have been.  The first is the Philips set, part of their 50th anniversary Great Recordings series which at the time of this writing (August 2001) has yet to be issued in the U.S.  If it is purchased from overseas the cost will be greater than the domestic release.  Of the three major ballets, first recorded was Sacre, Nov. 15, 1976, next came Petrushka, Oct. 31, 1977, and last was Firebird, Nov. 6-7, 1978.  Engineering on all three is outstanding. Philips engineers have been able to capture the rich sound of the Concertgebouw with definition and woofer-shaking bass.  All three performances easily are among the finest ever made of these scores.  Fortunately Philips has corrected errors on the previous CD releases.  On the original issue of Petrushka (416 498) Philips had 17 tracks but only two for Sacre -- but the latter had indices for different episodes, even though many CD players of the time (1986) couldn't accommodate them.  How strange to have two works on a CD with indices for only one!  Firebird also had a technical problem.  The original CD issue (400 074) contained no filler and there was but one track for the entire 46:40 playing time, a source of great frustration for those who might wish to play "Kashchei's Infernal Dance."  The new issue of course has separate tracks for all of the sections, and the 96kHz 24-bit remastering brings new clarity to these remarkable recordings.  Orpheus, a Stravinsky-Balanchine collaboration from 1947, comparatively a gentle score which is practically devoid of orchestral fireworks.  Davis's recording is as good as any and makes an appropriate filler for this set.

In 1929 Leopold Stokowski recorded Sacre for RCA sixteen years after the world premiere.  In 1955, just pre-stereo, Eugene Ormandy recorded it for Columbia, and in October 1978 Muti made his EMI recording.  Stokowski also made the first Philadelphia Petrushka, in 1937; Ormandy made two recordings of the suite, first in 1954, then in1964.  Muti's EMI performance came along February 23, 1981.  Throughout the years all record companies have had problems capturing the Philadelphia Orchestra sound, finding the Academy of Music far too unresonant -- although it produced fine mono sound on most of those Stokowski 78s.  When Muti made these Stravinsky recordings the orchestra was moved to the Old "Met" in Philadelphia.  Clarity is quite extraordinary, but warmth is lacking and there is little low bass so important in these massive Stravinsky scores.  Perhaps the new concert hall in Philadelphia will prove to be ideal for recordings.  Muti's performances of the two ballets are Mercedes-Benz quality; it's unfortunate sonically they disappoint. 

The second CD is filled out with more Stravinsky fare, the major work being the one-act ballet Pulcinella, the composer's approach to Pergolesi, written at the request of Diaghilev and premiered at the Paris OpÈra in May 1920  It's a delightful score displaying Stravinsky in lighter orchestral textures.  Sir Neville Marriner made this recording in 1981 in London; the following year he recorded the two Suites. Danses Concertantes was recorded in 1974 in Los Angeles.  All of this is a rather odd coupling for the two heavily-scored works on CD 1.  Performances are expert although if you want to hear Pulcinella in all its glory listen to the recent Decca recording with Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw (London 443 774).  And here's something new (to me) in the record business.  The CD booklet contains only two pages of notes about the music (also two pages each in French and German), and NO TEXT for Pulcinella.  We are informed that "sung texts and translations are included on the EMI Classics website."  Is this what's going to happen in the future for texts/libretti/translations?  The site address, by the way, is www.emiclassics.com.

R.E.B. (Aug. 2001)