Recording of the Week, Riccardo Chailly conducts a world premiere recording of music by Stravinsky
Yes, you read that correctly: a world premiere recording of a piece by Stravinsky! Chant funèbre, Op. 5 was written in 1908 as a memorial marking the death of Stravinsky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, and was performed the following January. After that, the music was thought lost until it was discovered in a pile of manuscripts at the St Petersburg Conservatory three years ago. Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra gave the second performance in December 2016 (a mere 107 years after the first!), and now we have the first recording courtesy of Riccardo Chailly and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.
For a description of this 11-minute elegy I can do no better than to quote Stravinsky himself in his autobiography: “I can remember the idea at the root of its conception, which was that all the solo instruments of the orchestra filed past the tomb of the master in succession, each laying down its own melody as its wreath against a deep background of tremolo murmurings simulating the vibrations of bass voices singing in a chorus.”
You can tell that it was written only a year or so before The Firebird: the mournful double basses in the very first bar sound like they could have come straight from the later work. It’s a magnificent piece, and it’s thrilling to hear it finally. (Incidentally, if you feel inclined to investigate further, then a study score was published last year by Boosey and Hawkes; I have included a link below to that item in our sheet music department.)
Chailly’s inspired decision is to programme it alongside three other orchestral works written around the same time. Fireworks, Op. 4 and Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3, are given virtuosic performances, with dazzling woodwind highly impressive in their interlocking semiquavers. Some of it is quite densely orchestrated, with quiet interjections over a bed of dancing strings, but Chailly makes sure you can hear every entry.
The final early piece is an extremely rarely-recorded one, namely Le Faune et la Bergère, Op. 2 (The Faun and the Shepherdess), three songs to texts by Pushkin. Chailly and the Lucerne players are joined by French mezzo Sophie Koch (who sings these songs in the French translation), and her voice is ideally suited to these depictions of budding young emotions: sweet and innocent in places, but full of sensuous tone when required.
With all these early orchestral delights, I feel bad for not devoting much attention to the main work on the disc, The Rite of Spring, but that is no reflection at all on the performance. Again, the level of detail is quite extraordinary: Chailly often opts for a fairly deliberate tempo, particularly in the famous Augures printaniers (Augurs of Spring) section, but the great advantage to this is that the myriad woodwind lines that often get buried in the mix can be effortlessly heard, not least the quietly frenetic contributions from alto flute. Similarly, I can’t recall many other recordings where I could so clearly hear the inexorable, heaving tread of the bass clarinets moving in parallel fifths in the section entitled Rondes Printanières (Spring Rounds).
This restraint pays off in Part Two, where Chailly lets rip with great fury in the Glorification de l'élue (Glorification of the Chosen One), and especially in the final Danse sacrale (Sacrifical Dance), the frenzy of which is made all the more satisfying by the earlier steadiness. Recorded live in concert last August, this is Chailly’s first disc with the orchestra since becoming their music director in 2016, and it’s eminently clear just what fantastically capable hands they are in: with a richness from the strings, and unparalleled expertise from woodwind and brass, this must be one of the most remarkable discs of Stravinsky’s music to have appeared for some time.