The Firebird brought the world’s attention to Igor Stravinsky, who at the time of the premiere of the ballet was an unknown composer not yet 30 years old. His first collaboration with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the score is broadly romantic, full of tricks practised by Ravel and Debussy. The ballet itself is rarely performed, perhaps owing too much to novelty and exoticism (pre-war Paris was all agog over things Russian), but the score remains an orchestral staple. Musically less challenging to audiences than its next of kin The Rite of Spring, the score is full of delicious moments for the ear and no more dissonant that Rachmaninoff.
This new release from the Seattle Symphony under music director Ludovic Morlot is delightful, if conservative. Moment follows descriptive moment of a fine rendering. The musicians exhibit polish in portraying the supernatural tale, but there may be a flaw inherent in the product itself: Stravinsky bridled at the job of creating too literal a musical narrative for the folk-inspired story. Perhaps his lack of investment cursed the music. Although perhaps perfect, this performance isn’t thrilling. I still believe there are possible interpretations where the terrors of Kastchei’s infernal garden are made relevant: not just polished but gripping.
Rounding out the disc is an homage to Seattle’s own Jimi Hendrix from Vladimir Nikolaev, another young composer a century later reworking the folk music of his own ethos into music that may well have staying power. Sinewaveland is the more powerful and effective performance.