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CD Review

Igor Stravinsky

  • Firebird (complete ballet)
  • Symphonies of Wind Instruments
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst
EMI 55030 - 56min
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Having persevered through an unremarkable Schumann Symphony disc some months back and later auditioning several disappointing broadcast performances led by Herr Welser-Möst, I hardly welcomed this assignment. However, in sharp contrast to the blandness and routine character of those earlier efforts, this disc offers outstanding interpretations of two beloved Stravinsky scores.

In the ballet, Welser-Möst always rivets our attention, even on those all-too-frequent occasions when the music is little more than background to the stage action. Welser-Möst never loses sight of the story, which he tells with consummate mastery. His interpretation is notable for its intense concentration, vigorous forward thrust, and vibrant colors that bring to mind all the splendor of Imperial Russia. Welser-Möst is clearly superior to both the lackluster Haitink (recently reissued by Philips) and Boulez's technically polished, but icy cold and heartless DG issue. And unlike Doráti, who flies through the score at a breathless clip (41:12 compared to Welser-Möst's relatively brisk 46:18), Welser-Möst never fails to point up the frequently startling contrasts in tempo, mood, and dynamics between the ballet's disparate episodes.

A few highlights: The 'Appearance of the Firebird' is wonderfully dramatic and appealing, while 'The princesses' round dance' becomes so totally entrancing that you simply won't want it to end. The 'Infernal dance' is thrilling and builds to an overwhelming climax. Although this is one of the most familiar moments from a very frequently heard work, Welser-Möst somehow manages to make it appear utterly fresh and new. The transition to the 'Lullaby' immediately following this dance is more seamless than either Haitink or Boulez, and its bassoon and oboe solos are haunting. Welser-Möst brings the ballet to a triumphal conclusion of amazing emotional power. The London Philharmonic plays gloriously, and the solo winds are absolutely radiant. As with so many of their recent orchestral recordings, EMI's engineers have captured the ensemble with exceptional clarity and presence.

The Symphonies of Wind Instruments may not be the most appropriate encore, but it is treated to a richly expressive and warmly melodic reading. This brief work all too often becomes a dry, academic exercise, but Welser-Möst's welcome combination of deliciously jazzy rhythms and clever turns of phrase never allows that to happen here. This is by far the warmest and most humane reading of Symphonies that I've yet heard.

A 56 minute CD is barely acceptable in this day and age, but its easy to tolerate short playing times with performances this good.

Copyright © 1996, Thomas Godell