The lure of this release is the "World Premier Recording" of Stravinsky's lost (and only recently discovered) manuscript of a memorial tribute he composed upon the death of his mentor and teacher, Rimsky-Korsokov - simply titled Funeral Song (Chant funebre). As the title would suggest, it is a somber, serious work which starts softly in the low strings and gradually builds to a fine climax. It is richly and colorfully orchestrated, as is to be expected coming early in Stravinsky's output (opus 5) when he was still under the strong influence of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsokov. It contains many hints of other works composed around the same period - namely Fireworks and Firebird - without achieving the level of accomplishment or lasting appeal of those works. It is a rather substantial piece, lasting 10 minutes.
Following it on this program, in descending Opus order, Chailly gives us Fireworks (opus 4), highlighting the above observations of similarities in texture and scoring; Scherzo Fantastique (opus 3); and The Faun and the Shepherdess song cycle (opus 2). The program closes with the real audience draw, the ubiquitous Rite of Spring, which, unfortunately, is rather disappointing. All were recorded live in concert in August 2017, although no mention is made of that fact on Decca's front or rear packaging art; nor is there any evidence of an audience in the recording itself (i.e. no applause, or obvious coughing fits, etc.).
Chailly recorded a series of Stravinsky ballets in the 1980s and early 90s for Decca with the Cleveland and Concertgebouw Orchestras which were, and continue to be, some of the best in the catalog. In particular (and in stark contrast to the one recorded here), his 1985 Rite with the Cleveland Orchestra is magnificent - one of the very best ever committed to disc. And Decca's recorded sound was hair-raisingly spectacular. It remains to this day one of the most superlative orchestral recordings ever. So this new recording of it with the same conductor would have to be very special indeed to match that previous one, let alone surpass it. Sadly, it does neither. (More on this later.)
Beginning with the very first low rumbles from the cellos and basses in the Chant, it is immediately apparent that this orchestra is weighted heavily with large numbers of low strings. A quick glance in the booklet confirms what is heard - the personnel listing reveals no fewer than 14 violas, 13 cellos and 9 double basses! What a massive string compliment! Normally I am of the mind that the more strings the better, especially when so many of today's orchestras tend to skimp on lower strings. However, Chailly encourages a very full-bodied, long-bowed tone from these players and the resultant sound is almost certainly too much of a good thing, at least as recorded. It tends to be a rather heavy, dark, slightly muddy sound from the mid-range on down. And it gets murkier the farther down into the bass regions they go. I'm not sure if Decca or Chailly is responsible for this sound palette, for it afflicts not just the opening number but continues throughout the entirety of the program.
This dark, weightiness works rather well in Funeral Song, but unfortunately all but buries Fireworks. It sounds too labored and lacking in scintillating fleetness. Chailly manages to lighten up for the more sparsely scored Scherzo Fantastique, taken at a very fast tempo. It whisks by without incident, skimming just the surface and missing some of the mercurial fantasy which can be discovered in the very best recordings. (Chailly's own 1994 recording with the Concertgebouw immediately springs to mind, along with Dutoit and Ashkenazy - all for Decca).
Skipping over the song cycle, with which I am not familiar, we come to more disappointment. I was hoping the power of this enormous orchestra would raise this new performance of the Rite of Spring to new heights, but, alas, it simply just weighs it down. Chailly's chosen tempos don't help. Many sections are sluggish and lack spontaneity (especially in Part One) and the music becomes ponderous. The opening of Part Two (and other such passages) lacks mystery, played matter-of-factly. And then, conversely, Glorification of the Chosen One takes off like a jet, leaving behind details and any sense of purpose. Even the final Sacrificial Dance, taken quickly, doesn't sound fast or set the heart racing; it is impossibly bogged down with thick, heavy long bows and the heaving of the heavy low brass. The biggest casualty, however, is the feel of the dance, which is all but lost. Nowhere is there a hint this was composed for the ballet. This is surprising given that Chailly's recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, three decades earlier, dances most excitingly, while at the same time being overwhelmingly powerful (and brutally barbaric when called for) and absolutely thrilling. The Lucerne Festival Orchestra can certainly produce a powerful sound, but it is far from exciting; it's just loud. And Decca's dark, thick sonics can't begin to touch their superlative sound captured in Cleveland 30 years earlier.
In sum, it is fascinating to hear this lost manuscript. While it is an interesting work, in all honesty I'm not sure I'd call it a lost masterpiece. Even after 3 hearings, I keep coming away wishing the tunes were a bit more memorable and developed. And even some of the construction and orchestration seems to be below Stravinsky's usual high level of accomplishment. Frankly, it sounds like a student work which could have benefited greatly by a revision later in Stravinsky's creative life. And, given the variable quality of the remaining performances/recordings on offer, I'm not sure the 10-minute rarity hardly makes it all worth it. And, finally, if all you're really looking for is a fresh (or matured) interpretation from Chailly of the Rite, you will be sorely disappointed.