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Riccardo Chailly | Igor Stravinsky

A deeply satisfying all-Stravinsky CD of live recordings released by Decca in January
Riccardo Chailly | Igor Stravinsky

The spirited muse of nature combined with pagan eroticism form an overall theme of this excellent new recording that centres on Russian Igor Stravinsky’s earthy ballet Le Sacre du printemps (‘The Rite of Spring’) recorded in the KKL Luzern in August last year.

Also included are two works, both composed in 1908 and closely associated with Stravinsky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. First we hear the short orchestral fantasy Feu d’artifice (Fireworks), Op 5 written as a wedding present for Rimsky-Korsakov's daughter. The work of real interest, however, is the recently rediscovered Chant funèbre ‘Funeral Song’ (in its original title Pogrebalnaya pesnya), Op 5 written as a tribute on the death of Rimsky-Korsakov. Following Chant funèbre’s first performance at a memorial concert in January 1909, the work vanished without trace, much to the composer’s disappointment. He later stated that from memory it was “the best of my works before The Firebird, and the most advanced in chromatic harmony”. A refurbishment of the 19th-century Conservatoire building in Teatralnaya Ploshchad (Theatre Square) St Petersburg in 2015 and the necessary relocation of all of its materials uncovered the century-old parts. Its first performance in recent time took place in December, 2016 by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra. This first recording by the excellent all-star Lucerne Festival Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly also includes a superbly expressive performance of Le Faune et la Bergère, Op 2 resonating with the program’s primal theme of eroticism, where settings of three poems by Alexander Pushkin are sung with distinction by mezzo soprano, Sophie Koch. Dedicating the work to his young wife, Stravinsky composed the work during their honeymoon.

Chant funèbre opens atmospherically with feathered strings and growling brass before Stravinsky’s trademark expressive woodwinds begin their song. The composer here imagines each woodwind instrument filing past the tomb of Rimsky-Korsakov, each laying a melodic wreath of respect. A muted horn theme enters next, stridently developed by strings and eventually coloured by staccato brass. Strongly balletic in feel, the work reaches its mighty emotional apex before a return to its opening shadowed material, ending in a vast cloak of dark, minor-key velvety softness that may remind us of Richard Strauss. At only ten and a half minutes in duration the work is an excellent addition to this outstanding composer’s body of work.

Without doubt one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps still has the capacity to shock for its raw impulse and violent propulsion. Its first performance in Paris on 29 May, 1913 by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées notoriously incited near riot amongst the capacity audience that included Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. The reviews were very negative: "The work of a madman…sheer cacophony," ranted Puccini. The work still has an almost frighteningly wild virility.

We may all have heard and enjoyed the distinction between a dozen recordings and performances of Stravinsky’s Rite but this one carries a quite exceptional clout. Here adrenalin-rousing visceral thump, primal weight and sensuously luxurious sonority all interact to create something unique. The balance and sound of this live recording is remarkable (recording producer Jason Fraser). Some years ago this reviewer heard the work performed in the same hall in Switzerland directed by the late Pierre Boulez. Much as I have revered the memory of that performance as the very best I have heard for its energy, precision, clarity and passion of its narrative, this recording marginally goes further in sheer might and mania.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Ricardo Chailly
Stravinsky Chant Funèbre
Decca New Release 483 2562

David Barmby

Friday 16 March, 2018

About the author

David Barmby is former head of artistic planning of Musica Viva Australia, director of music at St James' Anglican Church, King Street, artistic administrator of Bach 2000 (Melbourne Festival), the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre.