Stravinsky: Petrouchka, Pulcinella Suite - Boulez
Classical - Orchestral
Stravinsky: Petrouchka*, Pulcinella Suite, Scherzo fantastique, Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Paul Jacobs* (piano)
New York Philharmonic
Pierre Boulez (conductor)
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Review by John Broggio - May 16, 2022
This is a disc I have repeatedly enjoyed and must count as one of the finest reissues that Dutton have given us.
The account of Petrouchka offers the original 1911 version as does Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps, Petrouchka - Litton. By contrast, the accounts of Stravinsky: Petrouchka, Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances - Jansons, Stravinsky: L'oiseau de feu, Le Sacre du printemps, Petrouchka - Rattle, Stravinsky: Concertante music for piano & orchestra, Petrouchka - Bavouzet / Tortelier and Berliner Philharmoniker - The Asia Tour (2017) all offer the 1947 revision. Although the revisions are relatively slight in terms of the structure of the work, there are some clearly audible differences that Stravinsky made, with the use of offstage percussion being the most prominent "casualty" of the 1947 revision. The other changes Stravinsky made were to reduce the size of the wind and brass forces required, albeit compensated by fewer instruments needing to double up.
As the sleeve notes make clear, the accounts on this release were recorded on four single days, so approximating quasi "concert" performances (with an audience of 0!) and patching; all gain from a spontaneous feeling that is often lacking in studio accounts and do not have to negotiate the vexed questions of audience "contributions" (during or after each performance). The timings of all the accounts of Petrouchka listed above are remarkably consistent and Boulez proves as alive to the delightful inflections of colour as anyone. From a sonics perspective, the NYPO have a very different timbre from that of the Bergen PO, LSO and RCO; it's somewhat less rich in string tone that has been deployed in these accounts from up to half a century later. Fortunately the tapes have withstood the passage of time well, the only hint of age is the slightly "brittle" sounding upper treble but never discomfortingly so. In multichannel, the orchestra completely surrounds the listener - although a radical sound picture, the groupings of instruments are sensitively chosen both from the perspective of musical coherence and textual clarity. There are aspects of the score which are easier to hear in this account because of the careful choice of positioning than when given a "normal seat in the concert hall stalls"; some listeners may not appreciate such an approach but if one can accommodate more than a single account, it makes for a highly stimulating and enjoyable alternative to any of the fine alternatives listed above. Paul Jacobs is rightly listed as pianist and the likely orchestra members involved can be found at the NYPO's excellent digital archive (https://archives.nyphil.org/). As a minor technical point, Boulez's Petrouchka (like Litton's) is presented with one track for each of the Tableau; both Jansons and Rattle's LSO account use 15 tracks.
Next up on the disc is the Pulcinella Suite; Boulez would later go on to record the full score in Chicago (Stravinsky: Pulcinella - Chicago Symphony Orchestra). The suite has at least three fine alternative accounts (Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite - Weilerstein, Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite, Apollon musagète - Suzuki and Stravinsky: Apollon musagète, Pulcinella Suite - Janiczek). Perhaps unsurprisingly, given there are metronome markings in the score, Boulez's choice of tempi are very consistent over the 35 years between his two recordings and are also fairly similar to those of the alternative accounts listed. A couple of departures from agreement are in the Scherzo-Allegro-Andantino and Gavotta con due Varizioni movements which are both more moderately paced here but never to the point of feeling sluggish; some listeners may feel that the greater contrast offered here serves to better point up the difference with the neighbouring faster movements. The recording here is only four years the junior of Petrouchka but fares much better in terms of how the tapes have withstood the passage of time although is perhaps a little closely recorded. As with Petrouchka, the distribution of instruments is made thoughtfully.
Two shorter and highly contrasted works conclude the disc, the Scherzo Fantastique and the Symphonies of Wind Instruments. The Scherzo is the earliest work on the disc (1908) and displays a great deal of the virtuoso displays of orchestration that followed a few years later in The Firebird but in a more concentrated form. The NYPO, engineers (Sony, Dutton alike) and Boulez are all on the top of their game - almost worth the price of the disc by itself! The Symphonies of Wind Instruments much more austere and is given in the original 1920 version (like Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps - Rattle; both Stravinsky: Petrouchka, Pulcinella - van Zweden and Symphonies of Wind Instruments - Bergby use the 1947 revision). The Symphonies of Wind Instruments is somewhat calming to the ears after the extraordinary Scherzo and the recording wears its age lightly.
The sound is remarkably good for the source materials age (1971 - 1975) although some of the upper treble does sound a little brittle at times but this is not consistent throughout the disc. To these ears, it does not significantly detract from the listening experience but one of the more recently recorded accounts listed above may be preferable if the sound quality is the main consideration. The balances are always good and reveal the details of the score well (credit on this part is of course also due to the musicians), especially when listening to the multichannel layer. As often with source material of this vintage, the dynamic range is less than it may have been had these accounts been recorded today. Musically, all the accounts are highly stimulating; for sonics, the Petrouchka arguably fares worst and the Symphonies of Wind Instruments the best (with the Scherzo Fantastique a close runner-up) - the rating is a weighted average.
Highly recommended given the (slight) reservations noted.
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