BSO's newly released CDs feature works of Berlioz and Stravinsky


Hector Berlioz, the feverish Romantic who lived riotously in his own imagination, was fond of comments like, "Five hundred thousand curses on musicians who do not count their bars." Igor Stravinsky, the cunning revolutionary, gave not a nickel to critics: "Their attitude certainly can not make me deviate from my path."

Dramatic early works by these two influential and self-conscious composers are played invitingly in the latest compact discs recorded by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on the Telarc label.

In a 56-minute disc released this week, the BSO features three Stravinsky ballets, two of great import and notoriety, "The Firebird" (1910) and "Petrouchka" (1911), and one trifle, "Fireworks, Op. 4" (1907-08). Indebted to Russian folk tales, they are still Stravinsky-brash and still require some concentration for enjoyment.

"Petrouchka," though only a year later than "The Firebird," seems more mature. Its origin is a popular Russian puppet familiar for being persecuted. In the 1830 St. Petersburg Fair setting, the puppet loses girl and life but prevails in spirit. The BSO version underscores the pastiche of edgy playfulness, agitation and fear -- a Stravinsky mix the world wasn't quite ready for in 1911.

As the 27-year-old Stravinsky's first trend-setter, "The Firebird" tells a story with a happier ending: Prince Ivan and his lady are saved by the "fabulous bird with plumage of fire" and the evil magician Kastchei and his minions are destroyed. A shorter, 19-minute version distilled from the original ballet is played intelligently with graphic contrasts.

The BSO's eighth Telarc recording under David Zinman is a good sampler of the brilliant young Stravinsky, who was to offer much more until his death in 1971.

The Berlioz recording presents in 74 minutes the major work "Symphonie Fantastique" (1830) and two overtures, a somewhat fluffy "Les Francs-Juges" and the oft-played and uninteresting "Roman Carnival," both cannibalized from the wreckage of the early opera "Les Frances-Juges."

The 50-minute symphony, complete with church bells, has been described as extremely modern for its time in orchestration, mood pictures and detailed word descriptions offered by Berlioz. Its background is not so old, either.

Berlioz (1803-1869) had a one-sided obsession with an English actress, Harriet Smithson. She rejected him, he became embittered and they would later marry, live unhappily and separate.

The BSO recording brings out the kind of rapid-eye movement qualities of a drugged musician/dreamer Berlioz envisioned. The autobiographical dream features passion, the obligatory pastoral scene, march to the scaffold after killing his beloved and a witches' sabbath. It's a major Berlioz work faithfully played.

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