This is one of the more inventively packaged discs I've ever seen, Packed with original illustrations that depict both ballets and bursting with color and good notes, this is a feast for both the eyes and ears. It might have been nice to have the Firebird notated correctly as a suite, or the French titles on the cover (this is a French label, after all), but that's quibbling. It's an inventive and original tribute to one of the greatest works of all time. And as a bonus, you get a very good video performance with a well-behaved audience in quality picture and sound, although you only get the Rite in that format.
Veteran collectors may know this orchestra from their EMI days under Plasson, and rightfully so. Still, it would be difficult to imagine Plasson's players taking on these works so confidently. Even their French music sounded occasionally scrappy, albeit brimming with character. Today's Toulouse band sounds far superior, even if that sacrifices some – or most- of the typically French characteristics. Still, it must be said that in addition to being an exceptionally pleasing concept visually, the performances are excellent. Perhaps in the Firebird we find that Sokhiev and his players don't quite "let go" as the finest performances do, but the playing is generally superb and the suite glows in a very realistic and convincing acoustic. Winds are especially good, and brass do still have a slightly watery quality that brings back memories of the finest French records.
The Rite faces massive competition, not least from Bernstein's newly re-mastered New York performance on Sony, which I have not heard (I have his two studio remakes) but which drew praise even from the composer himself. I won't pretend that the Toulouse orchestra under Sokhiev is Bernstein's Philharmonic, but that doesn't mean this Rite isn't good. In fact, it's pretty great; Sokhiev pays attention to all kinds of little details that keep things interesting. He also moves smartly along, giving important sections such as the closing pages not just weight, but excitement as well. The DVD performance, recorded in the same month (September 2011) as the CD one, holds all of the mentioned virtues and is a treat if you like this kind of thing. There are so many Firebirds and Rites that naming the best is simply impossible, but this handsome release is a fine tribute to the Rite's centennial and looks and sounds great. If you want to hear and see what all the fuss was about, both then and now, this one is for you.
Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman