In 2018, the London Philharmonic and its principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski made Stravinsky’s music the year-long theme of their concerts at London’s Southbank Centre. This initial batch of live recordings from those performances, released on the orchestra’s own label, is devoted to the first decade of the composer’s 60-year creative career, with two of his most celebrated works, The Firebird and The Rite of Spring (in an earlier Royal Festival Hall performance, from 2008), as the focal points.
It’s an impressive first instalment, with every performance showing the outstanding qualities that distinguished Jurowski’s work with the orchestra. The accounts of the two great ballets, paired on the second disc, are impressive enough; perhaps The Firebird is sometimes a little on the cool side, but the performance of The Rite is terrifying in its controlled ferocity, with the LPO never losing focus for a moment. But the competition in these much-recorded works is fierce, and it’s the collection of the pieces that preceded them and which are much less well-known that makes the set valuable, and show how Stravinsky established his personal style with almost frightening speed.
The Symphony in E flat, Stravinsky’s Op 1, first performed, privately, in 1907, is a resumé of influences from the late 19th-century Russian symphony, especially from Borodin and Glazunov, and the settings of Pushkin in the “song suite” The Faun and Shepherdess (warmly sung by mezzo Angharad Lyddon) lean heavily on Tchaikovsky. But though the world evoked in the opening bars of the Scherzo Fantastique, given a dazzling performance by Jurowski and his orchestra, may be indebted to his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, it is immediately recognisable as early Stravinsky, just a step away from The Firebird. It’s a shame that his Op 4, Fireworks, isn’t included here, but we do get Op 5, the austere Funeral Song, written in 1908 after Rimsky-Korsakov’s death, the score of which was lost for almost a century until it was rediscovered in 2015. All in all, it’s a fine start to what could become an important series of Stravinsky recordings.
This week’s other pick
There’s more exceptional orchestral work on the latest release from the Cleveland Orchestra’s house label, which brings together live performances of three of Richard Strauss’s tone poems under their music director Franz Welser-Möst. It’s a long time since we’ve heard the Cleveland in Britain, and these swaggering performances are a reminder of what a peerless ensemble it is, at the very top of the world league.
Both Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel receive suitably extrovert treatment, but it’s the account of the much less familiar Macbeth that best shows both the refinement of the playing and the unfaltering pacing and dramatic shaping of Welser-Möst’s conducting.