Petrenko's Stravinsky series is more notable for the couplings than the main offerings
Maybe it's because there are so many fabulous recordings of the 3 classic Stravinsky ballets; or maybe it's the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic's rather dry, airless acoustic Onyx has to deal with; or, more likely, maybe it's both. But the fact of the matter is these are rather routine readings with somewhat mediocre sound. But let's not rule them out just yet, because Petrenko has an ace up his sleeve in the form of some imaginative and worthwhile couplings.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Let's get the technical details out of the way first. The Firebird and The Golden Cockerel were recorded in 2016; all the rest in 2017. It's odd that Onyx waited until 2020 to release the 3rd disc (Petrushka and La Boutique). But all have the same sonic fingerprints. The orchestra is set within a rather dry, airless acoustic, flat and somewhat cramped in dimensionality. More seriously, warmth and bass fullness are limited. That being said, the sound is sufficiently colorful and detailed, and the orchestra plays with precision. It's just a little lackluster, and far from the most sumptuous sound you'll hear from a modern digital recording of a symphony orchestra.
So getting down to business: Vasily is certainly no Kirill. Oh I know, they are not related; but comparisons are irresistible given they share the same last name and both have Russian roots. But clearly, Vasily doesn't have the Russian fire in his blood that Kirill almost always brings to the podium.
There is nothing wrong, really, with these Stravinsky readings. They just aren't distinguished or in any way memorable. Most striking, though, is they don't sound the slightest bit "Russian", tending to be civilized and proper in a very British way. The Rite in particular is lightweight, denying us the menacing primitiveness (and horror) of the storyline. However, its very fleetness allows it to sound more than usual like an actual ballet. And there are arguments to be made in favor of that. In particular, the final Sacrificial Dance is VERY fast and incisively articulate, and dances its way to a thrilling climax. As a matter of fact, I am reminded of Seiji Ozawa's first recording of this piece, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1968, RCA), which brings out the spirit of the dance like no other. However, it must be said, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is no Chicago Symphony. Nonetheless, this is an enjoyable Rite in its own right. (Sorry...pun intended).
The Firebird is actually pretty good, if only the recording was more lush and spacious, and it is played in its original 1910 version. I normally prefer Stravinsky's original scores over the revisions. However, in this case, the misguided scoring of a sustained trumpet high D (or a C#, if played on a Bb trumpet) through the final fanfare is annoyingly harsh and grating. Nothing wrong here with the RLP's principal trumpet player; it's just one of the rare Stravinsky missteps, which the revision mercifully eliminates.
Now to the couplings. While the somewhat airless, cramped recording quality remains, the extra music seems to come alive more, and is even more colorful. Perhaps this orchestra hasn't played these pieces in awhile, bringing a sense of freshness to the fore. I was particularly pleased to at last have a wonderful new recording of Rimsky's Le Coq d'Or (Golden Cockerel) Suite in modern digital sound. It is splendidly played and much more colorful and refined than we've heard on previous recordings of it. It's also very exciting. On the companion disc, Debussy's Printemps is beautifully done. And if Rachmaninov's Vesna (Spring), in which the orchestra is joined by the RLP Chorus, is a bit out of place surrounded by purely orchestral music, these seem appropriate as couplings for the Rite of Spring - if in name only.
Unfortunately, Onyx did not save the best for last. The 3rd disc offers up an unexceptional Petrushka, similar to its companions, lightweight and fleet (almost flippant). And its coupling should have been a delight, but isn't. Rossini/Respighi's La Boutique Fantasque is played here in its trivial and pointlessly truncated "suite", compiled (butchered) by Malcolm Sargent. The playing time is not especially generous (54'), so the entire ballet would have easily fit. I suppose I shouldn't lament all the missing music, for what remains is determinedly earthbound. And irritatingly, Petrenko insists on making musical points here and there, with some weird hesitations and unmarked subito-piano crescendos. It sounds as if he's trying to bring symphonic weight and seriousness to this music. I can't for the life of me understand why.
(P.S. I refer to Stravinsky's second masterpiece here as Petrushka, rather than the usual Petroushka, simply because that is how Onyx lists it on this CD. They also state it is the original 1911 version.)
I recently praised Oehms Classics for combining two less-than-stellar releases and reissuing them as a very inexpensive 2-fer. Onyx really should do the same with these Petrenko discs. They would make a splendid 3-pack, if priced right.
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