Stravinsky's The Firebird: A guide to the ballet's composer, storyline and its best recordings
We explain the synopsis and story behind Stravinsky's legendary ballet, The Firebird and explore its best recordings
Who composed the ballet, The Firebird?
Stravinsky was known only locally in Russia, as an accomplished but not obviously brilliant ex-pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, when Serge Diaghilev asked him to compose The Firebird. The project had been planned for the 1910 season of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company in Paris. Building on earlier successes there, Diaghilev wanted to present a new fairy-tale ballet, and had commissioned the score from Anatoly Lyadov, whose skill in conjuring atmospheric orchestral colour made him a natural choice. But Lyadov was a notoriously slow worker – and when it became clear, in the autumn of 1909, that he was never going to make the deadline, Diaghilev took a chance on the young Stravinsky instead. Starting only in December and working flat out through the winter, Stravinsky somehow had the short score ready in March 1910, and the full score by mid-May.
When was The Firebird first performed?
The ballet's 1910 premiere, on 25 June at Palais Garnier in Paris, was the first time that impresario Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes had presented the combined talents of Stravinsky, choreographer (and dancer) Mikhail Fokin, designer Léon Bakst and dancer Vaslav Nijinsky to a western audience. It was a huge success, acclaimed by critics and audience alike.
What is the story of The Firebird?
The ballet's plot tells the story of Prince Ivan who, lost, finds himself in the enchanted garden of the evil Kostcheï. There, he sees and is smitten by The Firebird. Though he tries to grab her, she makes her escape but gives him one of her feathers and tells him to wield it if ever he is in difficulty.
Ivan continues towards Kostcheï's castle, where he lingers in the pleasurable company of the beautiful Tsarevna. Too long, it would seem, as Kostcheï appears, and tries to turn the Prince into stone. Ivan waves the feather, at which point The Firebird reappears. The Prince is instructed to hurl a giant egg, containing Kostcheï's soul, to the ground, causing Kostcheï to die. Ivan and Tsarevna marry, to great rejoicing.
Our picture, above, shows Tamara Platonovna Karsavina as the Firebird and Mikhail Fokin as the Prince, 1913.
What are the best recording of Stravinsky's Firebird?
Malcolm Hayes selects the best recordings of the blazingly colourful ballet that, 100 years ago, brought Stravinsky’s name to worldwide attention
Sir Simon Rattle
City of Birmingham SO (1986) (with Petrushka, Symphony in Three Movements and
other works; 2 discs)
EMI 585 5382 £9.99
A really fine performance of the complete Firebird takes some achieving. Yes, it’s a one-act ballet with a conventional storyline. (Prince Ivan hunts and captures the Firebird, then compassionately releases her; he falls in love with a Princess, kept spellbound with other princesses and knights in the evil Kastchei’s enchanted garden; the Firebird returns and rescues everyone, Kastchei dies, and all ends well.) But that story and the magically vivid way that the music tells it still need to be given full value. The orchestral virtuosity required is about as demanding as you can get. Yet if you allow its performers too much reassuring space, then the drama risks being short-changed. What makes Rattle’s 1986 recording with the CBSO a stand-out is its success in squaring these musical circles. As ever, Rattle never rushes his players. Sure enough, they rise to the challenge with state-of-the-art individual and collective flair; one superbly realised musical moment after another generates a sense of a story being told, and the recorded sound is focused and atmospheric.
The principal horn (a wonderful player) and trumpet deliver a couple of tiny technical glitches which maybe should have been re-taken – but which don’t remotely detract from the start-to-finish splendours of the ‘most available’ recording I’ve
yet heard. You feel afterwards that you’ve been to fairy-tale Russia, in a great composer’s company.
Columbia Symphony Orchestra (1961)
(22 discs) £24.99
Stravinsky always tended to disparage The Firebird when talking about it. This was probably because its colourful Romanticism, beyond which his music then developed so quickly, nonetheless made his early ballet his most popular and lucrative creation (at least in the form of its shorter orchestral suites). Action speaks louder than words, however, and Stravinsky’s underlying affection for the work is unmistakable in his complete recording. His approach is tight-reined, direct, crisply accented and focused, and not at all clinical: indeed he seems to revel in the music’s gorgeous sounds and colours. More than fresh enough sound for the vintage allows one to savour some sharply characterised playing: the grotesquerie
of Kastchei’s music is especially striking.
London Symphony Orchestra (1959)
Mercury Living Presence 432 0122
Made in 1959, this recording did much to put the complete Firebird score on the map, showing how much the work gained from being played in Stravinsky’s original, larger orchestration, and with the narrative linking sections, themselves containing some of the most vivid music, to tell the story. While the recorded sound is bass-light by modern standards, it’s truthful in other respects – and doesn’t get in the way of some brilliant playing from the LSO at the height of what was a legendary era for the orchestra. In passages such as the arrival of Kastchei and his hordes, the combination of panache and precision still thrills as much as ever.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1992)
DG 471 7412
In a score that’s about colour and virtuosity, modern digital sound is a plus, as is the presence of one of the world’s top-flight orchestras. If you want to savour every ounce of the young Stravinsky’s orchestral brilliance, then this recording offers just such a feast. The command of the playing is remarkable, as is the forensic precision of Boulez’s ear for detail. He also brings a poised élan to those parts of the score where this is called for: The Firebird’s first dance has a spring in its step. What’s lacking is the drama of other versions. It’s true that compared to the taut, dance-orientated scenario of Petrushka (or The Rite of Spring), that of The Firebird is less vivid. But in passages like those portraying Kastchei’s evil magicianship, Stravinsky maximises such high drama as there is. Musical story-telling isn’t Boulez’s game, however. Instead he treats the work as an abstract study in Russian impressionism – though a beautiful one, with crafted playing
Rimsky-Korsakov Le Coq d’Or Suite; Stravinsky The Firebird
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko
Onyx ONYX 4175 75:29 mins
The orchestral suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel is no rarity, but has the master magician’s last utterance ever been presented before as a prelude to pupil Stravinsky’s first ballet? Spectacularly characterful Liverpool woodwind connect the two works, from the first free arabesques of principal clarinet to the bassoon in the firebird’s lullaby.
And one to avoid
Eliahu Inbal is a fine conductor, so it’s surprising that this Firebird manages to disappoint so much. The Philharmonia delivers with serious quality; and as Rattle and the CBSO show, an orchestra being given time to play is a good situation in principle. But Inbal’s tempos are so consistently broad – he takes six minutes longer over the score than Boulez, and 11 longer than Dorati – that the music’s drama and narrative sweep are direly undercut
Find out more about Stravinsky and his works here
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.
Malcolm Hayes Was the former chief music critic of the Sunday Telegraph, and was a music critic with The Times(1985-86) and the Daily Telegraph (1989-95). He has continued to contribute classical music features, reviews and listings to the Sunday Telegraph, and is a regular feature-writer and reviewer for BBC Music Magazine. He writes programme notes for the Proms, the BBC orchestras, and many other organisations.