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ClassicsOnline Home » STRAVINSKY: Firebird (The) / Petrushka / Suites Nos. 1 and 2
Journal Into Melody
"I defy anyone not to be moved by this exemplary performance"
By Brian Higgins
"Alexander Rahbari and his band relish the exotic colouring of both scores and deliver them with enthusiasm and panache. Recommended."
Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971)
The Firebird (L'oiseau de feu) (Suite No.21919)
Petrushka (1947 Suite)
Igor Stravinsky was the son of a distinguished bass soloist at
the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, creator of important roles in new operas by
Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. He was born, the third of four sons, at Oranienbaum on
the Gulf of Finland in the summer of 1882. In childhood his ability in music did not seem
exceptional, but he was able to study music privately with Rimsky-Korsakov, who became a
particularly important influence after the death of the composer's imperious father in
1902. He completed a degree in law in 1905, married in the following year and increasingly
devoted himself to music. His first significant success came when the impresario Dyagilev,
a distant relative on his mother's side of the family, commissioned from him the ballet
The Firebird, first performed in Paris in 1910. This was followed by the very Russian Petrushka in 1911 for the Dyagilev Ballets russes, with which he was now closely
associated, leading in 1913 to the notorious first performance of The Rite of Spring, first staged, like the preceding
ballets, in Paris. Although collaboration with Dyagilev was limited during the war, when
Stravinsky lived principally in Switzerland, it was resumed with the ballet Pulcinella, based on music attributed to Pergolesi,
and starting Stravinsky's association with neo-classicism. The end of the association with
Dyagilev was marked by w hat the impresario considered a macabre present, the Cocteau
collaboration Oedipus Rex.
Stravinsky has been compared to his near contemporary Picasso,
the painter who provided decor for Pulcinella
and who through a long career was to show mastery of a number of contrasting styles.
Stravinsky's earlier music was essentially Russian in inspiration, followed by a style of
composition derived largely from the 18th century, interspersed with musical excursions in
other directions. His so-called neo-classicism coincided with the beginning of a career
that was now international. The initial enthusiasm for the Russian revolution of 1917 that
had led even Dyagilev to replace crown and sceptre in The Firebird with a red flag, was
soon succeeded by distaste for the new regime and the decision not to return to Russia.
In 1939, with war imminent in Europe, Stravinsky moved to the
United States, where he had already enjoyed considerable success. The death of his first
wife allowed him to marry a woman with whom he had enjoyed a long earlier association and
the couple settled in Hollywood, where the climate seemed congenial. Income from his
compositions was at last safeguarded by his association with Boosey and Hawkes in 1945,
the year of his naturalisation as an American citizen. The year 1951 saw the completion
and first performance of the English opera The Rake's Progress, based on Hogarth
engravings with a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, a work that came at the
final height of the composer's neo-classicism. The last period of his life brought a
change to serialism, the technique of composition developed by Arnold Schoenberg, a
fellow-exile in California, with whom he had never chosen to associate. In 1962 he made a
triumphant return to Russia for a series of concerts in celebration of his 80th birthday.
Among his final compositions are the Requiem Canticles of 1965-6 which follow his Requiem Introitus for the death of the poet T. S.
Eliot, but prefigure his own death, which took place in New York in April, 1971. He was
buried in the cemetery on the island of San Micheie in Venice, his grave near that of
Dyagilev, whose percipience had launched his career sixty years before.
The ballet The Firebird
(L'oiseau de feu) was devised for Dyagilev by Fokin. Music was originally commissioned
from Lyadov, but delay on his part led to an invitation to Stravinsky, who had already
scored for Dyagilev two movements of Les Sylphides
for the 1909 Paris season. Décor was by Golovin, with costumes for the Firebird, danced by Karsavina, and for the Tsarevna by Bakst. Stravinsky started the music in
November 1909 and completed it in orchestral score by May, 1910, in time for its first
staging at the Paris Opera on 25th June. He later arranged three concert suites from the
ballet. The second of these, written in 1919, uses a smaller orchestra than the
extravagant original ballet score.
Prince Ivan captures the exotic Firebird in the magic garden of
the ogre Kashchey. He releases her when she gives him one of her feathers, to be used to
summon her help in moments of danger. Ivan falls in love with the beautiful Tsarevna, one
of thirteen princesses held prisoner by Kashchey, whom Prince Ivan finally defeats with
the help of the Firebird. In the second Suite the first dance of the Firebird is followed
by the dance of the Princesses, based on Russian folk-songs. The dance of the ogre
Kashchey and his subjects leads in the ballet, to the Firebird Lullaby, and the Suite ends
with the rejoicing of the Finale, when the Prince and his Princess are united.
Petrushka, a burlesque in
four scenes, was completed in May 1911 and first staged in Paris a month later under the
musical direction of Pierre Monteux. Stravinsky had at first considered a concert piece
for piano and orchestra, with the former as an uncontrollable puppet, eventually defeated
by the orchestra. Discussion with Dyagilev led to the composition, instead, of a ballet,
based on the Russian puppet Petrushka, who
here comes to life, to be killed by his rival for the hand of the Ballerina, the Blackamoor.
Choreography was by Fokin and decor by Alexandre Benois, with Nijinsky in the title role.
In 1947 Stravinsky re-scored the work for a smaller orchestra, with triple instead of
quadruple woodwind and a single harp.
The opening scene shows the Shrovetide Fair in St. Petersburg.
There are holiday crowds in Admiralty Square. On one side a man plays a hurdy-gurdy, the
sound rivalled when another appears with a musical box. The Showman draws back the
curtains of his puppet theatre to show Petrushka,
the Ballerina and the Blackamoor, puppets that he brings to life with
his flute. In the second scene, in his cell, Petrushka suffers at the cruelty of his
master, hoping to find relief in the love of the Ballerina, who rejects him. The Blackamoor, however, succeeds in charming the
Ballerina, but their dalliance is interrupted by the jealous appearance of Petrushka.
Outside at the fair groups of revellers dance, the wet-nurses, followed by a peasant with
a performing bear, the appearance of a drunken merchant, and a dance of the coachmen. From
the puppet theatre a noise is heard, and Petrushka emerges, pursued by the Blackamoor, who
kills his rival with his scimitar. The Showman reassures the crowd, showing them that
Petrushka is only a puppet, but as night comes on and the people disperse, the ghost of
Petrushka is seen above the booth, mocking them.
In 1914 and 1915 Stravinsky wrote three easy pieces for piano
duet, following these the next year with a series of five more, the second set for his
eider children, Theodore and Mika. The first pieces have an easy left-hand part, the
second an easy right-hand. The two Suites derived from these pieces are scored for small
orchestra and were published in 1925 and 1921 respectively. In the first Suite the titles
generally reveal the origin of the music. Espanola was written after a visit to Spain in
1916 and Napolitana after a visit to Naples in the following year, while Balalaika
proclaims at once its Russian source. In the second Suite, the Galop is taken from Five
Easy Pieces and the March, Waltz and Polka from the earlier duets, the whole new
arrangement originally used in a Paris music-hall sketch. The Suites were subsequently
used for ballets by various choreographers, starting with the version by Max Terpis for
Berlin in 1927.
BRT Philharmonic Orchestra, Brussels
The history of the BRT Philharmonic Orchestra, Brussels goes
back to the birth of the Belgian Radio in the 1930's. After the well-known musicologist
and promoter of contemporary music, Paul Collaer, had become head of the Music Department
of the Belgian Radio, the orchestra, under its conductor Franz Andre gained a world-wide
reputation for its interpretations of the latest compositions of Stravinsky, Berg,
Bartók, Hindemith and other 20th century composers. For example, the orchestra gave the
first European performance of Bartók's Concerto for
Orchestra in Paris and the first West European performance of the Fourth Symphony by Shostakovich. The orchestra at
that time worked with many of today's leading conductors from Pierre Boulez, Paul
Hindemith and Darius Milhaud to Lorin Maazel and Zubin Mehta.
In 1978 the Radio Symphony Orchestra was dissolved and both the
Flemish and the French Radio divisions set up their own symphony orchestras. The Flemish
network soon had a new orchestra, the BRT Philharmonic, comprising some 90 musicians and
Fernand Terby became its principal conductor from 1978 to 1988. Since 1988, Alexander
Rahbari has been the principal conductor and musical director of the new BRT Philharmonic
Alexander Rahbari was born in Iran in 1948 and was trained as a
conductor at the Vienna Music Academy as a pupil of von Einem, Swarowsky and
Österreicher. On his return to Iran he was appointed director of the Teheran Conservatory
of Music and took a leading position in the cultural development of his country. In 1977
he moved to Europe, winning first prize in the Besançon International
Conductors' Competition and the Geneva silver medal. In 1979 he was invited by Herbert von
Karajan to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and served as von Karajan's assistant
in Salzburg. Rahbari's subsequent career has been highly successful, with concerts
throughout the world and engagements in leading opera-houses. He is guest conductor of the
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, with Giuseppe Sinopoli, and has conducted major orchestras
throughout Europe, in Japan and in Canada. Alexander Rahbari is now a citizen of Austria.
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