Originally composed as a concertante for piano and orchestra, Stravinsky later cobbled it into the wonderful ballet Petrushka to satisfy a commission from Paris' Ballet Russe, the great impresario Diaghilev, in particular. After the grand success of his first ballet, The Firebird, the public wanted more from the young Stravinsky. Petrushka was also very successful and laid the groundwork for The Rite of Spring, an altogether different proposition.
Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969) was a very fine conductor, thoughtful and precise, and a mainstay of the Decca Record Company. He's just what this music ordered. Petrushka is much more rhythmically complex than the fairy tale Firebird. Lots of 5/8 and polyrhythms. Monteux and his original Ballet Russe orchestra must have had a fun time! Ansermet makes much of the rhythmic energy. The Swiss orchestra plays extremely well for Ansermet. Ensemble is cohesive and solos are distinguished and a delight throughout.
The wonderful story conveyed in the most evocative, stunning music is told with large brush strokes and a dry wit. Lots of pathos, too. It seems like an unwritten competition just how pathetic a conductor can make the hapless Petrushka. A good one like Ansermet? Heartbreaking.
My favourite section, the opening Shrovetide Fair, is a whirling, head spinning rhythmic tale -- Stravinsky's rhythmic incision is breathtaking. Ansermet's orchestra sounds fantastic in their home Victoria Hall. Known for its wonderful acoustics, the recording is well nigh flawless -- powerful and delicate as need be. Both macro and micro dynamics are stunning on this LP.
Whether in Petrushka's room or the Moor's, Ansermet wrings every bit of colour and character provided by Stravinsky. I know most recordings of one of my favourite pieces of music. Many are better played, none better recorded. And none better in characterization.
The recording captures the pp percussion exquisitely. Listen to the low woodwinds' Moorish melody with its accompanying percussion --cymbals and bass drum. The quiet percussion is so accurate. Loud brass, too, when things start going pear-shaped and the Moor fights and 'kills' Petrushka.
The dancing bear, the wet nurses, and all the other characters that make up the finale of the ballet take their places in front of the audience, both on and off stage, like a kinky Nutcracker. And in the end, Petrushka's cackling (muted ff trumpets in minor 2nd) from death is suitably vengeful. It's only a story, right?
This performance of Stravinsky's Petrushka was recorded at Victoria Hall in Geneva October/November of 1957. Decca says: 'The Decca engineers, led by Roy Wallace, set up a tree with three Neumann KM-56 microphones. The signal was routed through a three-channel vacuum tube mixer, without noise processing or gain riding, to an Ampex stereo vacuum tube recorder.'
Petrushka, ballet (burlesque) in 4 scenes for orchestra (1947 version)
Ernest Ansermet/ L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande