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Stravinsky: Symphony in C etc (BBC Philharmonic/Davis)

BBC Philharmonic/Andrew Davis (Chandos)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

Symphony in C; Symphony in Three Movements; Divertimento; Greeting Prelude; Circus Polka
BBC Philharmonic/Andrew Davis
Chandos CHSA 5315 (CD/SACD)   83:27 mins

This imaginatively devised, generously filled and sumptuously recorded programme is an absolute winner. In exerting a tight rhythmic control over the musical argument and injecting sufficient wit and vitality into these performances, it strongly reinforces Andrew Davis’s credentials as one of the finest of all Stravinsky interpreters. With exemplary control of orchestral balance, clarity of texture and a capacity to draw a fabulous array of colours from the music, these performances are guaranteed to keep the listener riveted from first bar to last.

The album gets off to a rollicking start with the extremely brief Greeting Prelude, an ingenious and idiosyncratic arrangement of the famous ‘Happy Birthday to You’ melody composed in honour of the 80th birthday of veteran French conductor, Pierre Monteux. There’s precious little time to draw breath before Davis launches us into a particularly forthright account of the Symphony in C. Despite adopting somewhat steadier tempos for the outer movements than some other conductors, the performance generates a great deal of high-voltage tension. Utilising the widest possible dynamic range, Davis creates a prodigious level of urgency particularly in the Finale where he ensures that the few big climaxes have real heft and that the austere wind chords at the coda achieve a profoundly moving sense of closure. Earlier in the work perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the performance is the lyrical playfulness and delicacy that Davis brings to the Larghetto concertante and the central section of the Scherzo, features that are often overlooked in interpretations by others.

Despite a slight blip of ensemble, with the violins momentarily ahead of the rest of the orchestra after the opening upward flourish in the first movement of the Symphony in Three Movements, the performance of this powerful and stormy work is equally compelling. Davis carefully controls the ebb and flow of Stravinsky’s episodic structure in order to maintain forward momentum even in the more reflective passages of the opening movement. The central Andante provides necessary repose, but Davis also brings an unexpected warmth to writing that in lesser hands can so easily sound arid and impersonal. After this, the relentless tread of the Finale builds up a real head of steam as Stravinsky’s increasingly frantic and jagged orchestral writing hurtles excitedly towards the concluding strongly defiant chord.

The Divertimento from the ballet Le Baiser de la Fée, in which Stravinsky pays homage to his great Russian predecessor Tchaikovsky, provides arguably the most satisfying performance of all. Davis demonstrates a natural empathy for the composer’s balletic mode of expression, negotiating all the tricky juxtapositions of tempo with complete mastery, but also allowing sufficient flexibility of line to delineate those elements of nostalgia and fantasy that are also part and parcel of the work. As in the rest of this recording, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra really pulls out all the stops here, delivering stunningly virtuosic playing with some wonderfully shaped solo contributions from the oboe, the flute and the lower strings.

Erik Levi