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Stravinsky: Rite Of Spring (The) / The Nightingale (Stravinsky, Vol. 3)

September 1, 2005 | Format: MP3

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By Santa Fe Listener HALL OF FAME on December 17, 2005
Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
In their quest to rule the world, Naxos is picking up excellent reissues, including the discontinued Stravinsky cycle from the 1990s conducted by the composer's ever-faithful acolyte, Robert Craft.

This rare full-length "Nightingale" is one of the best things Craft has done. The previous reviewer covers all the particulars. Clearly we have been missing out on a small masterpiece. Because Stravinsky worked on his chamber opera from 1909 to 1914, it both predates the Firebird and postdates the Rite of Spring. Critics have claimed that the work therefore suffers from stylistic schizophrenia. Not true--Stravinsky wasn't necessarily aiming for a consistent idiom. The mixture of Russian folk rhythms, Le sacre-like orchestral writing, and liberal dashes of Orientalism makes The Nightingale unique and hauntingly exotic. It doesn't sound like Mavra, Les Noces, Renard, or Stravinsky's choral works from this period. I would describe the vocal writing as folk bel canto, at least in the florid bird songs done so superbly here by Olga Trifomova. Five stars.

Craft has always been hit-and-miss as a conductor, and with this 1995 'Le scare' he misses, being unable to forcefully guide Stravinsky's huge orchestra. He's fine in the small inner details, but the build-up of tension over a long stretch is beyond him. Three stars, despite excellent plyaing from the LSO.

P.S. -- I went back to the composer's 1960 recording of The Nightingale, and it's altogether delightful. Reri Grist as the Nightingale and donald Gramm as the Emperor are standouts in the cast. It's the preferred version but may be hard to find outside Sony's complete Stravinsky box.
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Format: Audio CD
Thus sings the Fisherman (in Russian) about the singing of the nightingale in Stravinsky's 'Chinese opera' 'The Nightingale' ('Solovei' in Russian, often referred to as 'Le chant du rossignol,' its French title). And indeed the comment could apply to this performance of Stravinsky's neglected one-act opera from 1909-1914. This release is part of the ongoing Naxos/Robert Craft/Stravinsky collection that continues to make available marvelous performances previously on other labels. In this case, 'The Nightingale' appeared on the MusicMasters label in the late 1990s. Craft conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra. The Nightingale is sung by Mariinsky soprano, Olga Trifonova, in a clear high soprano. She handles the coloratura effortlessly and reaches her high E without shrieking. Robert Tear, a tenor I've admired for many years, sings the part of the humble Fisherman. Pippa Longworth sings The Cook and is slightly taxed by the part, but not onerously so. Paul Whelan sings a firm-voiced and suitably lordly Emperor. One of the great joys of this work is its inventive and extremely effective orchestration by Stravinsky. Where else have you heard trumpet and mandolin playing in unison? And Stravinsky takes on Messaien in his depiction of bird-sounds -- with tremolos, gruppetti, pizzicato glissandi, string and harp harmonics, trills -- not to mention the lowing of a cow or the croaking of a frog. This score is one of Stravinsky's most masterful inventions. What a shame it is not more often presented. There are other good recordings of the work, but none that I'm aware of that are budget-priced. Complete transliterated Russian libretto with English translation included.

'Rite of Spring,' of course, has been recorded many, many times, and frankly I've never heard a really bad performance of it.
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Stravinsky's "The Nightingale" is like a musical addiction: it is very powerful to listen to. This Chinese opera should be a special possession for all Neo-Classical fans. The soloists (especially Trofonova and Tear) give out their all with flair and flamboyance, the orchestra is in top form, the conductor handles the musicality very well, and the sound quality on this Naxos CD is just breathtakingly wonderful. What actually works for this 20th Century piece is its imagery and its Oriental stylishness for atonal melody. Stravinsky didn't just write this piece to be about death and redemption. He also wrote this in order to make us feel what old China was like. For this, I give an A+.

Craft's own rendition of "The Rite of Spring" is bit of a disappointment. Indeed, you still get some correctly intense moments when they are needed: The Augurs of Spring and Ritual of the Abductors are truly stunning. However, much of the slow movements are sped up. I think this robs them of their mystical beauty, though Dance of the Young Girls does sound more freakish and the Introduction to Part Two (The Sacrifice) lives up to other conductors' expectations (such as Gergiev and Salonen). The Sacrifical Dance, the final sequence in the ballet, should sound very monstrous and terrifying; Craft fails to bring it all here. The brass and percussion don't seem to have enough energy for this four-minute pandemonium. The entire performance as a whole is vrey good, but you can find better recordings elsewhere.

All in all, I can still recommend Craft's Rite of Spring, get this CD especially for the Nightingale.
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I didn't care overmuch for Maestro Robert Craft's conducting of Stravinsky's Firebird, issued by Naxos a few months earlier than this release, but I found his reading of The Rite of Spring more to my liking. Craft is a noted expert in things Stravinsky, having been a close friend of the composer and a co-conductor on occasion. Still, that doesn't mean we're all going to warm to his interpretations.

John J. Puccio
Classical Candor
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