Looking for a great new "Firebird"? Well, here are three more outstanding recordings of the Stravinsky ballet score, joining an already-crowded field.
Indeed the above-listed Pierre Boulez CD is that conductor's second of the complete 1910 original, the first, with the New York Philharmonic, still being available on CBS.Despite the difference between the orchestras - nearly always favoring the Chicago Symphony - each reveals the conductor's ongoing concern for clarity and drama. Even Stravinsky himself, recently remastered on Sony, does not display more of a composer's ear for this piece's inner workings than does Boulez.
But where the earlier performance seemed a little dry in places (and that despite a slower, more mysterious Introduction), it is the new one that finds Boulez more into the music's moods. Check out his unexpectedly affectionate handling of the "Berceuse" and the eerily illuminated transition to the finale, building to a typically strong close.
Kent Nagano's "Firebird" is also strongly built, from its quietly brooding Introduction to its similarly direct finale, here excitingly scaled. Yet at the same time it is more flexible than Boulez's, with a slower overall timing, and starker than Franz Welser-Moest's.
It is also more subtly lit than either, particularly in the earlier pages, where Nagano's subdued colorings and gentle nudging of phrases lead gradually to a sinuous evocation of the Firebird herself and a mercurial Scherzo, depicting the Princesses and their game with the golden apples.
If it is the Russian fairy-tale aspects of this score that interest you, however, as opposed to its more modernistic impulses, Welser-Moest is your man. His performance may not be as rhythmically taut as some, but seldom have I heard this music more richly characterized, with some memorable contrasts of mood, color and dynamics.
So much so that, despite my usual inclination to switch back and forth while comparing performances, once I got into this one I simply couldn't put it down, succumbing in turn to its intoxicating "Supplication of the Firebird," the flurry of the Princesses' Scherzo, the mounting tension of the entry to the evil Kastchei's domain (culminating in a darkly dramatic "Infernal Dance," here bristling with menace) and the ghostly transition to the finale.
I have mentioned Stravinsky's own recording - the horse's mouth, as it were - and am likewise impressed by Dorati's 1959 Mercury performance (in many ways still the most exciting), Davis' and Dutoit's. But you won't go wrong with any of the above, with DG offering the most impactive sound - one of their "4D" jobs.
If couplings are a factor, the same values are present in the "Symphonies of Wind Instruments," with Nagano offering the 1920 original and Welser-Moest the 1947 revision, yet somehow managing to link it to that earlier world of 1910. Ditto Boulez's Four Etudes and "Fireworks," though oddly the latter seems less pointed than Dorati's, or even Dutoit's.