Pétrouchka is so familiar and, like Stravinsky's other two big ballets from the period, The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, needs either a fresh approach or a brilliant performance to keep it from sounding stale. In the hands of Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, a combination of both is achieved here, though the conductor's somewhat individual interpretation can also have a downside.
The Vienna players turn in splendid work, even if this music is supposed to be out of their tradition. Maazel's reading harkens back to his Cleveland days when it comes to clarity: everything sounds transparent and open, with inner voices rarely buried in blended textures and main lines front-and-center. Of course, I'm not sure Maazel ever abandoned this approach, but here it seems more in evidence than in his recent efforts in Sibelius and Strauss.
Tempos tend to be centrist except for the Wet Nurses' Dance near the beginning of the Fourth Tableau. Here Maazel's tempo is so fast that some detail is lost and the gaiety begins to turn hectic. This is about the only objectionable passage in the performance, however, as the rest goes quite well. The opening and, for that matter, the whole Shrovetide Fair and next two scenes, are quite convincing. This is a fine Pétrouchka then, but BMG recently reissued an excellent one by Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in its High Performance series that's at least this good and coupled with an excellent The Rite of Spring.
The two other works here, which may make purchase more desirable for hardcore Stravinskyans who have enough recordings of The Rite and The Firebird, are the Le Chant du rossignol symphonic poem (taken from the opera), and the early Feu d'artifice. Both get fine performances, with the former perhaps one of Stravinsky's most underrated works. Maazel makes no missteps here and the detail that emerges and excitement he imparts combine to make this a stunning effort. The colors in this exotic score come through with such brightness and contrast, and the Vienna Philharmonic players deliver spirit and commitment throughout. Feu d'artifice, minor though it is, gets a performance that treats it as if it were a masterpiece.
BMG's sound is excellent in all works and the notes are quite informative.
Copyright © 2000, Robert Cummings