It may seem amazing today that such a tuneful work as Petrushka was once thought fearfully dissonant', begin the notes to this new recording from Cincinnati; doubly so in the case of Järvi's interpretation, which somehow manages to make Petrushka (the 1947 version) feel more a part of mainstream classical music, and less a product of Russian folklore. It's balletic, it's beautifully played by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and Järvi brings a sense of objectivity to the performance - the feeling that we are actually watching a puppet show on stage in front of us, instead of being caught up in the drama ourselves. It's as though we can see the strings every time we choose to watch them being pulled; we're always aware of the puppet-master here, and there's no question that his puppets are always being manipulated for our entertainment, that they have no wills of their own. Perhaps that's what makes the ending more powerful, when Petrushka's ghost appears and mocks us on muted trumpet: maybe we were wrong? Maybe the puppet-master doesn't own his mannequins' souls.
Firebird (1919) doesn't have the visceral intensity and savage colour of some recent recordings, but instead Järvi and his Cincinnati players find a dreamy, other-worldly quality that's perfectly appropriate for this famous fairytale. Just when you're getting used to luxuriating in the sheer beauty of the score, Kastchei's Infernal Dance begins and nails you to your seat. The recording is a marvel, a Telarc classic: soft-grained and with a gentle ambient glow that bathes the whole soundstage, and yet every detail seems to be easily heard. And that bass drum; it sounds as if it's about three metres across, with a steam-hammer powering the stick...so well caught, it's as though the Telarc engineers have gone into Music Hall and found the perfect place for the bass drum in the acoustic, spent ages fiddling with microphones until the sound is spot on, and then assembled the rest of the band around it.
After the Infernal dance, the strings and mournful bassoon in the Berceuse are serenely, sadly beautiful, and the transition to the final celebratory dance is superbly handled; it unfolds as naturally as a spring bud, with none of the indecent haste you sometimes hear.
These aren't performances for someone who thinks that these fairy-tale ballets by Stravinsky need the intensity and violence of his Rite of Spring, but if for you there's something unreal about fairy-tales, and there's a necessary artifice in a puppet-show, you'll be able to live with this recording...and dare I suggest, happily ever after? --Catherine Chambers
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