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Stravinsky: The Firebird - Performance & Rehearsal / Ansermet

Stravinsky / Ansermet / New Phil Orch
Release Date: 12/20/2011 
Label:  Eloquence   Catalog #: 4803780   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Igor Stravinsky
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New Philharmonia Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

STRAVINSKY The Firebird Ernest Ansermet, cond; New Philharmonia O DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 3780 (2 CDs: 96:52)

& Ansermet rehearses The Firebird

Many years ago, a friend and I went to Carnegie Hall to hear Igor Stravinsky conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in a program consisting of Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture, Tchaikovsky’s Read more Second Symphony, and his own Scènes de ballet and the Petrushka Suite. Unfortunately, Stravinsky wasn’t feeling well, so William Smith, the orchestra’s assistant conductor, handled the first half of the concert, while Stravinsky, rather than disappoint the audience, conducted his own music. In those days, it was my custom to go backstage and meet the performers. There was a big line of people outside Stravinsky’s dressing room, as you might imagine, but I knew a shortcut that would allow us to enter via the dressing room’s exit. I assumed that, by the time we arrived at the exit, there would already be a crowd there and we could slip in unnoticed. It appears that the public was still waiting outside because when we barged into the room, there was Stravinsky, standing there, staring at two embarrassed teenagers. Turning to his small entourage, he shrugged his shoulders and invited us in. Not only did he sign our programs, he patiently answered a few questions. I hope he didn’t think us as stupid as the woman who reputedly told him that her favorite Stravinsky piece was Scheherazade. In response to his polite denial of authorship, she admonished him not to be so modest. Anyway, I will always have a fond memory of him for his patience with two impulsive teenagers.

Although their friendship cooled later in life, Ernest Ansermet remained a faithful partisan of most of Stravinsky’s music, at least that which he composed before moving to the United States. I might as well point out that I have never been convinced that Stravinsky was, ipso facto , the best conductor of his own music despite the generally high quality of his recordings. In this instance, I cannot compare him to Ansermet because I’ve never heard Stravinsky’s own 1961 recording of the complete Firebird , a score he felt he had outgrown; in fact, he came to prefer that the ballet be staged using the so-called “New Augmented Version” of 1945, which dispenses with most of the pantomime music and concentrates on dance numbers. That was his final word on the score, which exists in four official editions: the 1910 original, a 1911 suite that omits the Lullaby and Finale, a 1919 suite that restores those sections but omits the Adagio and Scherzo, and the 1945 suite, which restores the Adagio and Scherzo. Stravinsky also made various editorial changes with each new edition. In addition, Stravinsky and Erich Leinsdorf (twice) recorded what amounts to an amalgam of the 1911 and 1919 suites and Ansermet included the Scherzo as an addendum to his 1947 recording of the 1919 suite. While I’m at it, I might as well mention that there are transition passages that connect the “Infernal Dance,” Lullaby, and Finale that are designated as optional in the 1945 score (and probably in 1919). In his 1929 recording of the 1911/1919 amalgam, Stravinsky includes the first one; in his 1946 recording of the final edition (and probably in 1967, when he rerecorded the 1945 version), he omits them both.

For whatever reason, Decca recorded some or all of the rehearsals that led up to Ansermet’s second recording of the complete Firebird, which, sadly, turned out to be his very last recording of anything; he died three months later. Ironically, Stravinsky’s stereo recording of the 1945 suite, made during the previous year, turned out to be his last recording. As a tribute to a musician who meant so much to the company, Decca released 49 minutes of excerpts from Ansermet’s rehearsals in a double LP album with the complete recording. When it first appeared as a London CD, the Firebird recording did not include the rehearsal segment. Decca Eloquence, I am happy to say, does include it on a second CD. It isn’t the sort of thing you’ll be likely to listen to over and over again, but hearing one of the 20th century’s greatest maestros at work has its fascinations. At one point, he tells the orchestra that the reason the score is so difficult to play (even for the Philharmonia Orchestra) is that, when he wrote it, Stravinsky was a relatively inexperienced composer and the score contains some very awkward passages, some of which the composer simplified in later editions. At another point, he mentions that he conducted the score in London at the Alhambra and Princess Theaters and Covent Garden during the early 1920s, “so we can do it in ’68, no?” As the finished product reveals, they certainly can.

For the sake of context, I compared this recording with several others—those of Craft, Doráti, Dutoit, Haitink, Nagano, Salonen, Schwarz, Volkov, and Ansermet’s earlier one with the Suisse Romande Orchestra. I could live with any of them except the Schwarz, which is obviously aimed at children since it uses a narrator (Natalya Makarova) with a Russian accent, who reads the tale of Prince Ivan and the Firebird over the music! For what it’s worth, my narrow favorites of this group are those of Craft (good enough to inspire me to buy his Stravinsky ballet set on Naxos) and Dutoit, but my favorite of all is this one. I appreciate the color and flavor of the Suisse Romande performance but, given one of the world’s best orchestras, Ansermet produces a performance of such brilliance and refinement that I must call it the best I’ve heard. It’s a shade slower than his earlier one but I think it works to the music’s advantage, giving some passages more point and clarity. With more than 50 competitors out there, that’s all I can say. By 1968, the Decca engineers certainly had the measure of Kingsway Hall, a celebrated recording venue—in fact, it was the site of Ansermet’s 1947 recording of the suite.

Decca issued a similar double album of Ansermet’s Symphonie fantastique but, since the orchestra is that of the Suisse Romande, the rehearsal is conducted in French.

FANFARE: James Miller
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Works on This Recording

Firebird by Igor Stravinsky
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New Philharmonia Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: Russia 

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