I recently wrote about a recording of Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite that was so good it enabled me to hear that too-familiar piece as if for the first time. Since then I have encountered a Firebird recording so extraordinary it not only made the piece sound fresh, but convinced me that my childhood was deprived and my musical education bankrupt. "The Firebird: Russian Fairy Tale" is marketed as a children's CD, but the charm and power of this narrated version of the complete ballet should win over all but the most hardened adult hearts.
Before retiring from the ballet stage, the Russian-American ballerina Natalia Makarova danced the role of the Firebird numerous times. In this recording, she returns to the Firebird as narrator and delivers a stunning dramatic performance. Makarova gives the characters of the fairy tale uncanny depth; her narration of Prince Ivan's encounters with the Firebird and with Princess Vasilisa is charged with pathos, innocence and eroticism. Makarova reads with a passion that I, for one, do not recognize from the fairy tales of my youth.
Makarova is clearly the star of this recording. But it is the adept combination of text and music that accounts for this disc's magic. The narration provides one revelation after another about Stravinsky's accomplishment, which was not only to musically portray human feelings such as wonder, dread, triumph and erotic longing, but to paint light with sound. The Firebird, this performance reveals or reminds, is a miracle of synaesthetic composition, portraying through the ear what is seen with the eye. Add to music and poetry Makarova's dramatic performance, and the overall effect can be overwhelming: the moment at which not only the music and the poetic image but Makarova's voice become "brighter and brighter" is as aesthetically rich as any moment in ballet or opera.
In 1994, Delos released this 1991 recording in a boxed set of "3 Russian Fairy Tales;" the set will be re-released with new cover art early this year. Luckily, the three CDs are available separately, for the other titles in the set do not compare to the "Firebird." In Tchaikovsky's "The Snow Queen" and Profokiev's "Prince Ivan and the Frog Princess," music performed by pianist Carol Rosenberger alternates with Makarova's narration; the result is awkward and overlong. I'm not sure how many times a listener, child or adult, will sit still for 45 minutes to hear Makarova and Rosenberger take turns presenting music and text that are often only tangentially related. Rosenberger, who did such a masterful job of adapting the "Firebird," should set her sights on another ballet or tone poem. Children of all ages would be very lucky if she did.