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Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta, November 2010

These live recordings, released in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, reveal two sides of its then-chief conductor Lorin Maazel. The Firebird Suite, recorded in 1999 in the Herkulessaal of the Residenz, Munich, is a low volume level recording that does no favors for the rather tepid performance. Granted, this is a difficult work to put across convincingly. Starting with Firebird, which is much more symphonically that balletically conceived, Stravinsky seemed determined to sabotage the classical ballet itself. The first four movements of the suite concern an enchanted garden at night, a handsome prince who enlists the aid of a fabulous supernatural creature, the Firebird, and a bevy of captive princesses for its corps de ballet. Amazingly, despite these auspicious story elements, nothing seems to happen in the early going, and what incidents there are (e.g., the sudden appearance of the Firebird in 2) are undercut by the lifeless orchestral performance and Maazel’s leaden conducting. When the excitement does commence with the Infernal Dance of Kastchei, the evil sorcerer, the tension sags noticeably in the middle. Even when things pick up again, the urgency seems forced. A brighter, more spirited Finale attempts to salvage what is on the whole a disappointing performance.

Maazel, who can be a very cerebral conductor, is more comfortable with Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring, 1913), with its highly complex, almost mathematically precise scoring and use of contrasting elements. In this work, Stravinsky almost singlyhandedly created the musical language of the modern ballet. Leonard Bernstein thought it had “the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms and whatever else you care to name.” American composer George Perle speaks of the “intersecting of inherently nonsymmetrical diatonic elements with inherently nondiatonic symmetrical elements” as the major source of the conflicted energy in this work. (How’s that, George?)

Any way you account for it, there is an undeniable primeval savagery in this work, interspersed with cooler moments that serve to increase its basic tension rather than provide a respite from it. And Maazel has his finger on the pulse of the work from beginning to end. It is easy enough to express the dynamism in such climactic moments as the Games of the Rival Tribes (which include the ritual abducting of brides) and the moment in The Sacrifice when the Chosen Maiden must dance herself to death to appease the gods. But Maazel doesn’t let the intensity slacken in the quieter moments either, such as the Introduction to Part I, Mysterious Circles of the Adolescent Girls, and Evocation of the Ancestors, moments in which other performances have fallen apart. In sum, he more than redeems himself, in this 1998 recording made in the Munich Philharmonie, Gasteig, for the disappointing Firebird Suite that opens the disc.

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