The draw of this disc is presumably not Riccardo Chailly’s re-recording of the Stravinsky warhorse Le Sacre du Printemps, although it’s been 30 years. Rather it’s the early works of Stravinsky – much less well known, never before given such loving, exemplary recordings, or – in the case of the re-discovered Chant funebre op.5 – never before recorded at all and only discovered in 2015 and re-premiered in 2016. Still, it’s the most major single ingredient on this disc with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (which Chailly has taken on after Claudio Abbado’s demise) and it’s plenty worth hearing. Chailly has always been someone to make Stravinsky sound beautiful rather than radical – and that’s a sense that purveys not just the lush early works but also his colorful, perfumed, even soft Rite. That’s not the stereotype of an ideal performance, which is rather along the lines of razor-drawn lines in unforgivingly exact execution… but it is a wonderful foil to such interpretations.
Happily, Chailly is interested in repertoire just off the beaten path in a way that many mainstream conductors can’t be bothered with… and adds the orchestral works Scherzo fantastique op.3, Feu d’artifice op.4, the aforementioned Chant funebre op.5, and the orchestral song Le Faune et al Bergère op.2 to the mix. That novel Chant funebre – composed to memorialize Rimsky-Korsakov – starts out of a hovering, dark mist… much like something that Wagner might have composed. A flame licks through the brooding brass. Probably some Niebelungs just died. The ten-minute work eventually turns to a more lyrical, even Tchaikovsky-esque vein. Despite (or not?) more Wagner quotations to greet us in the subsequent works, this is really Stravinsky at his very French phase; much of the music resembles – vaguely in a literal sense; more strongly in mood – that of Paul Dukas or even Albert Roussel. The gorgeous, pastoral central section of the Scherzo fantastique, op.3, is of poetic and elegiac grace that any composer interested in sheer beauty would be proud to have penned.
Speaking of more Wagner quotations, they come to the fore in Le Faune et al Bergère, sung by the wonderful mezzo Sophie Koch (one of the finest Octavians around). It’s a blatant Liebestod-quotation that comes out on the ante-pre-penultimate, pre-penultimate, and penultimate lines of the last stanza: “The river weaves a shroud / flecked with gold / takes her away from this earth” – only for the orchestra to intone the playground taunt “Na-na na-na boo-boo” to the fact that she got away, after all: “No! Lila is still alive!”
With so much unsuspected Stravinsky-goodness, it made me go and pull out my beloved Stravinsky-conducts-Stravinsky box (see also: The 10 Best Classical Recordings Of 2015) from the shelf. Why had I missed these works before? Did Stravinsky ever conduct them himself? Apart from the above-mentioned world premiere, yes. The Faun and the Shepherdess with Mary Simmons – in Russian! – and the CBC Symphony Orchestra in 1964 in Toronto ; Fireworks and the Scherzo Fantastique a year or two earlier – with the CBC Symphony the latter and with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra the former. Fireworks even got another, earlier, recording, in New York in 1946 with the New York Philharmonic. Sound quite different, there; the Lucerne Festival Orchestra is a far more luxurious-sounding body of sound; the CBC and Columbia outfits sound – comparatively – like the soundtrack to like a Turner Classic Movies film music special generally and more flitting, modern in the case of Feu d’artifice, especially. The box remains the go-to source to white-balance any expectations – but for these works, Chailly is the obvious go-to recording.
The Lucerne Festival Orchestra – and with it the Festival itself – owed much to Claudio Abbado, who resurrected the orchestra and made it a great and certainly very well regarded (perhaps occasionally overrated) musical body. But with so much of the success riding on the fumes of Abbado’s fame and power of personality, his demise was a very considerable blow to the institution that had been so focused on one man. There are not many conductors who could have possibly filled the position of being Abbado’s successor in Lucerne and the keep orchestra (enthusiastic, often famous freelancers that add to a core made up of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra) together and relevant. Riccardo Chailly is one of the few such conductors – and happily one who gets only ever more interesting as he grows older, rather than becoming mellow and boring with the years. This disc is an auspicious sign of excellent and interesting things to come. Bit early for “Best of 2018” shortlists… but this is definitely a corker!