★★★★ (out of five)
Beware the lost leavings of great composers. Time and again we get hyped up about a long-forsaken missing score, only to be cruelly awakened by the reality of its insignificance. In some case, the composer mislaid the score with good reason. In others, it adds nothing to the sum of our knowledge. Anyone care to remember a few bars of Beethoven’s 10th symphony? Or Schubert’s?
The present premiere release is an exception to that ignominious rule. Here’s the back story. In 1908 Igor Stravinsky, unknown and in his mid-20s, wrote a funeral ode for his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The music was played at Rimsky’s obsequies and the music not again until the score turned up two years ago in a St Petersburg archive and Valery Gergiev won the rights to give the first modern performance.
On first hearing, you can hardly tell it’s Stravinsky. The shimmering strings and lowing woodwinds could be mistaken for Sibelius, or even the young Richard Strauss. But once the bassoon utters a short line it pops out like a Stravinsky thumbprint under police lights. And from there on you can hear the three great ballets simmer below the surface. That said, this gentle, affectionate early work demands to be heard for the pleasure it give, rather than as a detective clue in how Stravinsky was formed.
A brisk run-through of two more student works — Fireworks (op 4) and Scherzo fantastique (op 3) — and a triptych of orchestral songs leads us into the main course of the album, the Rite of Spring, of course.
Not another Rite! I hear you cry. Indeed not. This immaculate performance by Riccardo Chailly and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra eschews the usual brutality. This Rite is more religious ritual, less mass rape, a spiritual convocation with some crazy dancing. Chailly’s approach is a refreshing contrast to Russian roughness, an alternative reading of a modernist masterpiece. The instrumental soliloquies are elegant and serene. The bassoonist (unnamed) deserves a Nobel Prize.
LUDWIG VAN TORONTO