Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/ Riccardo Chailly
(Decca 458 142-2)
Apollo, master of the muses, source of all our inspiration. How to convey that in music and dance? How to convey perfection? By creating it? Not possible. But then the impossible has always taken a little longer. Perhaps the real miracle of Stravinsky's Apollon Musagete - and of the great ballet George Balanchine made of it - lies in the fact that, between them, they reinvented classicism, for then, for now, and for ever.
There is a timelessness, a purity, about this score that in the right performance - such as this - sounds almost incorruptable. It isn't, of course. Immodesty in any shape or form can be ruinous to its perfect symmetries. Balanchine called it "white music, in places white-on-white". But that doesn't make it passive or benign. On the contrary. Inspiration is a proactive business, and Chailly never lets us forget that. The playing of his Royal Concertgebouw strings is wonderfully spontaneous, as if the music were still somehow "in the air". There are times - the muted pas de deux of Apollo and Terpsichore, for instance - where these players seem barely to make contact with the strings of their instruments at all. But we know better, of course. The art concealing art that goes towards making so graceful, so long-limbed, so articulate and balanced a performance as this, is born of great patience and considerable skill.
And a great pair of ears - Chailly's. His account of the 1945 Firebird Suite (the one with the interpolated "pantomimes" - effectively a whole new version of the ballet) is startlingly well-heard. Exotic in the best sense. The rude awakening of Kachtchei and his followers finds the woodwinds of the orchestra (clarinets and bassoons in particular) stretched to various states of alarm; rawness and refinement, beauty and bestiality, co-exist most satisfyingly throughout.
And, for good measure, we've one of young Igor's audition pieces for Diaghilev: his Scherzo Fantastique - a vivacious cross-breeding of Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn with a little Wagnerian reverence (Parsifal, to be precise) thrown in during the trio.
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