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As you listen to the assured, complex ballet music Igor Stravinsky wrote for The Firebird, it’s impressive to think that the composer was only twenty-seven when he created it.
While Stravinsky was Russian through and through, Paris was a crucially important city for him: it was here that the highly controversial The Rite of Spring was premiered in 1913. The city had also hosted the premiere performance of The Firebird three years earlier.
The job of writing the music for this Diaghilev ballet was never meant to fall to Stravinsky, though. The first-choice composer was fellow Russian Anatol Liadov, best remembered nowadays for his brooding orchestral piece The Enchanted Lake. Liadov suffered a musical version of writer’s block and was unable to come up with any music that could suitably convey the centuries-old legend of the firebird. So, straight off the subs bench came Stravinsky, eager to make his mark on the Ballets Russes which Diaghilev ran in Paris.
The premiere of The Firebird in 1910 cemented Stravinsky’s position as one of the period’s most exciting and dynamic composers, and he was revered by the musical elite of Paris. Today, the ballet remains in rep across the world – and the concert suite is regularly performed, too.
Philharmonia Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Sony: SBK 89894.