STRAVINSKY: The Firebird / Petrushka / Suites Nos. 1 and 2 (Alexander Rahbari/ Belgian Radio and Television Philharmonic Orchestra/ Gunter Appenheimer/ Robert Groslot) (Naxos: 8.550263)
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Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971)
The Firebird (L'oiseau de feu) (Suite No.21919)
Petrushka (1947 Suite)
Igor Stravinsky was the son of a distinguished bass soloist atthe Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, creator of important roles in new operas byTchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. He was born, the third of four sons, at Oranienbaum onthe Gulf of Finland in the summer of 1882. In childhood his ability in music did not seemexceptional, but he was able to study music privately with Rimsky-Korsakov, who became aparticularly important influence after the death of the composer's imperious father in1902. He completed a degree in law in 1905, married in the following year and increasinglydevoted himself to music. His first significant success came when the impresario Dyagilev,a distant relative on his mother's side of the family, commissioned from him the balletThe Firebird, first performed in Paris in 1910. This was followed by the very Russian Petrushka in 1911 for the Dyagilev Ballets russes, with which he was now closelyassociated, leading in 1913 to the notorious first performance of The Rite of Spring, first staged, like the precedingballets, in Paris. Although collaboration with Dyagilev was limited during the war, whenStravinsky lived principally in Switzerland, it was resumed with the ballet Pulcinella, based on music attributed to Pergolesi,and starting Stravinsky's association with neo-classicism. The end of the association withDyagilev was marked by w hat the impresario considered a macabre present, the Cocteaucollaboration Oedipus Rex.
Stravinsky has been compared to his near contemporary Picasso,the painter who provided decor for Pulcinella
and who through a long career was to show mastery of a number of contrasting styles.
Stravinsky's earlier music was essentially Russian in inspiration, followed by a style ofcomposition derived largely from the 18th century, interspersed with musical excursions inother directions. His so-called neo-classicism coincided with the beginning of a careerthat was now international. The initial enthusiasm for the Russian revolution of 1917 thathad led even Dyagilev to replace crown and sceptre in The Firebird with a red flag, wassoon succeeded by distaste for the new regime and the decision not to return to Russia.
In 1939, with war imminent in Europe, Stravinsky moved to theUnited States, where he had already enjoyed considerable success. The death of his firstwife allowed him to marry a woman with whom he had enjoyed a long earlier association andthe couple settled in Hollywood, where the climate seemed congenial. Income from hiscompositions was at last safeguarded by his association with Boosey and Hawkes in 1945,the year of his naturalisation as an American citizen. The year 1951 saw the completionand first performance of the English opera The Rake's Progress, based on Hogarthengravings with a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, a work that came at thefinal height of the composer's neo-classicism. The last period of his life brought achange to serialism, the technique of composition developed by Arnold Schoenberg, afellow-exile in California, with whom he had never chosen to associate. In 1962 he made atriumphant return to Russia for a series of concerts in celebration of his 80th birthday.
Among his final compositions are the Requiem Canticles of 1965-6 which follow his Requiem Introitus for the death of the poet T. S.
Eliot, but prefigure his own death, which took place in New York in April, 1971. He wasburied in the cemetery on the island of San Micheie in Venice, his grave near that ofDyagilev, whose percipience had launched his career sixty years before.
The ballet The Firebird
(L'oiseau de feu) was devised for Dyagilev by Fokin. Music was originally commissionedfrom Lyadov, but delay on his part led to an invitation to Stravinsky, who had alreadyscored for Dyagilev two movements of Les Sylphides
for the 1909 Paris season. Decor was by Golovin, with costumes for the Firebird, danced by Karsavina, and for the Tsarevna by Bakst. Stravinsky started the music inNovember 1909 and completed it in orchestral score by May, 1910, in time for its firststaging at the Paris Opera on 25th June. He later arranged three concert suites from theballet. The second of these, written in 1919, uses a smaller orchestra than theextravagant original ballet score.
Prince Ivan captures the exotic Firebird in the magic garden ofthe ogre Kashchey. He releases her when she gives him one of her feathers, to be used tosummon her help in moments of danger. Ivan falls in love with the beautiful Tsarevna, oneof thirteen princesses held prisoner by Kashchey, whom Prince Ivan finally defeats withthe help of the Firebird. In the second Suite the first dance of the Firebird is followedby the dance of the Princesses, based on Russian folk-songs. The dance of the ogreKashchey and his subjects leads in the ballet, to the Firebird Lullaby, and the Suite endswith the rejoicing of the Finale, when the Prince and his Princess are united.
Petrushka, a burlesque infour scenes, was completed in May 1911 and first staged in Paris a month later under themusical direction of Pierre Monteux. Stravinsky had at first considered a concert piecefor piano and orchestra, with the former as an uncontrollable puppet, eventually defeatedby the orchestra. Discussion with Dyagilev led to the composition, instead, of a ballet,based on the Russian puppet Petrushka, whohere comes to life, to be killed by his rival for the hand of the Ballerina, the Blackamoor.
Choreography was by Fokin and decor by Alexandre Benois, with Nijinsky in the title role.
In 1947 Stravinsky re-scored the work for a smaller orchestra, with triple instead ofquadruple woodwind and a single harp.
The opening scene shows the Shrovetide Fair in St. Petersburg.
There are holiday crowds in Admiralty Square. On one side a man plays a hurdy-gurdy, thesound rivalled when another appears with a musical box. The Showman draws back thecurtains of his puppet theatre to show Petrushka,the Ballerina and the Blackamoor, puppets that he brings to life withhis flute. In the second scene, in his cell, Petrushka suffers at the cruelty of hismaster, hoping to find relief in the love of the Ballerina, who rejects him. The Blackamoor, however, succeeds in charming theBallerina, but their dalliance is interrupted by the jealous appearance of Petrushka.
Outside at the fair groups of revellers dance, the wet-nurses, followed by a peasant witha performing bear, the appearance of a drunken merchant, and a dance of the coachmen. Fromthe puppet theatre a noise is heard, and Petrushka emerges, pursued by the Blackamoor, whokills his rival with his scimitar. The Showman reassures the crowd, showing them thatPetrushka is only a puppet, but as night comes on and the people disperse, the ghost ofPetrushka is seen above the booth, mocking them.
In 1914 and 1915 Stravinsky wrote three easy pieces for pianoduet, following these the next year with a series of five more, the second set for hiseider children, Theodore and Mika. The first pieces have an easy left-hand part, thesecond an easy right-hand. The two Suites derived from these pieces are scored for smallorchestra and were published in 1925 and 1921 respectively. In the first Suite the titlesgenerally reveal the origin of the music. Espanola was written after a visit to Spain in191