Igor Stravinsky's contributions to the ballet genre almost single-handedly lifted it to the front ranks of musical forms in the twentieth century. From The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring through Apollo, Agon, and Orpheus, Stravinsky's ballets are milestones in the history of musical modernism, and thus the question is not "should one hear recordings of the master's ballet?" but "whose recordings of the master's ballets should one hear?"
One could go for the modern recordings by Boulez or the classic recordings by Ansermet. Or one could go for the arguably definitive recordings by Stravinsky himself who recorded most of his ballets several times, the final, most complete set of performances taped in splendid stereo sound for Columbia. Or one could go for the definitive recordings by Robert Craft, Stravinsky's amanuensis, editor and, in the master's final years, his most faithful interpreter. Craft recorded virtually all of Stravinsky's music in the '90s and early 2000s for the Koch and MusicMasters labels, and these are the recordings drawn on for the contents of this six-disc Naxos box set of the ballets.
It should be said at the outset that these are uniformly superlative performances and that the digital sound is consistently direct and vivid. And it should further be said that Craft clearly knows these pieces like he knows his own mind, and every performance here rings true. But, those things acknowledged, it must also be said that these are not the warmest, most colorful, or most exciting performances of Stravinsky's ballets ever recorded. Craft's colors are mostly cool and clear without heat or tang, his tempos are mostly moderate and always controlled, and his affection for the music, while undoubted, tends to turn up in the oddest places. Instead of leaning into The Firebird's jubilant climax, the Scènes de Ballet's noble "Pas-de-deux," or Apollo's radiant "Apotheosis," Craft finds expressivity in the Nightingale's icy sonorities, Agon's rigorous rhythms, or the Orpheus' austere "Apotheosis." Even Stravinsky's famously chilly interpretations have more obvious warmth than Craft's. Craft's clear-eyed approach grows out Stravinsky's, and his performances are much like Stravinsky's in their lucidity and intensity, though with even more precisely articulated conducting.