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 Recording of the Week, Vasily Petrenko conducts Stravinsky & Respighi

A double-bill of ballets form today’s Recording of the Week – markedly different in some ways yet closely linked. Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra pair Stravinsky’s groundbreaking Petrushka with La Boutique fantasque, consisting of Respighi’s orchestrations and arrangements of Rossini’s Péchés de vieillesse. It’s hard not to see this as a contrasting of darkness and light – though as the curtain rises on the bustling fair scene of Petrushka Petrenko’s approach is in many ways gentler than some performances, which imbue the setting with a sense of almost oppressive overwhelming noise. Rather than playing up the chaos of the busy festivities, his tempo and dynamic level are held back just a little. Combined with some stylish touches of rubato in the opening flute motif and a silky solo from the cello high in its range, it’s an original approach, and one that pays off when the genuinely loud moments arrive.

Vasily PetrenkoThe original 1911 version of Petrushka performed here differs subtly from the 1946 revision, mostly in orchestration. One key difference is the use of two cornets to supplement the trumpets. All four players are consistently impressive, from Petrushka’s curses against the Magician to his frenetic dancing to impress the Ballerina, his fight with the Moor and the chilling final flourish as his ghost spooks the Magician in the now-empty square. Special mention, though, must go to cornet player Luca Piazzi, whose solo moments are a true joy. The solo accompanying the Ballerina’s dance for the Moor sees Piazzi clearly differentiate the two motifs, spiky and lyrical, that make it up – as if showing us that the Ballerina’s interest in the Moor has more than one side to it. The wonderful trio for cornet, flute and bassoon that opens the Moor and Ballerina’s waltz is no less characterful. Credit also goes to the horns for their stamina in the Wet-Nurses’ Dance, staying at the top of the stave for bar after bar, never giving any hint of fatigue in their sound.

Despite all these stellar solo moments, some of the most impressive playing of all is in the whirling tuttis, with most of the orchestra working together to create a blur of tonally weightless sound. The slow transition between the departure of the peasant with his bear and the arrival of the revelling merchant midway through the fourth tableau is a wonderful moment where nothing needs to happen and the music just gently grows, with the bassoons’ scales just audible through what must surely be a sonic representation of fluttering snowflakes.

Sergei DiaghilevOne might expect the obvious pairing with Petrushka to be Pulcinella, but Petrenko has instead chosen a different work from the same stable. Sergei Diaghilev’s idea of reclothing older music in new orchestrations for use in the Ballets Russes gave us not only Pulcinella but also La Boutique fantasque, a tale that like Petrushka draws on the blurring of the line between the fictional world of puppets and toys, and that of real life. The easygoing melodiousness of Rossini’s source material, and the Nutcracker-esque setting of a magical toyshop, come as a palpable relief after the unsettling, at times grotesque, world of Petrushka. The initial parade of the toymaker’s magical automata sets the tone; it’s clear that there is to be little or no darkness in this half of the album.

It’s the kind of music that could easily be dismissed as “charming” or “enchanting”, and risks becoming saccharine if not handled with care – nowhere more so than in the admittedly self-indulgent Valse lente and Nocturne. Petrenko and his musicians, though, make a convincing case to take this music a little more seriously. The opening March and the Mazurka both have a wonderful swaggering pomposity to them. Respighi’s colourful orchestration animates the music throughout, and the combination of this with Rossini’s enviable gift for melody is a winning mix.

The juxtaposition of these two works seems more apt the more I think about it. The upbeat optimism of the Boutique perfectly offsets Petrushka, and the result is an album that takes the listener on a journey from a world tinged with the sinister into one of sweetness and light – with the players audibly responding to, and musically capturing, both outlooks.

Stravinsky: Petrushka and Rossini/Respighi: La Boutique fantasque

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC