Concerto for piano and winds~
Petrushka (1911 version, excerpts)
Pulcinella Suite (excerpts)
Serenade in A*
The Fairys Kiss Divertimento
The Firebird 1945 Suite
The Rite of Spring
The Soldiers Tale Suite
Various orchestras, ensembles and artists conducted by Igor Stravinsky (piano*)
Soulima Stravinsky (piano), LOrchestre de la Société des Instruments à Vent conducted by Fernand Oubradous~
Recorded between 1928-1947
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: July 2002
CD No: ANDANTE 69948 71960 2 (3 CDs)
An invaluable opportunity to get to know Stravinsky’s music as the composer himself imagined it, and at a time when he had lived with some of this music for quite a time – Firebird, Petrushka and Rite in particular – for a significant time and he had the experience and authority to get his wishes across. These are not necessarily definitive recordings though because Stravinsky came back to record his music as an older man, and with differences. Nor can composers always be counted the most reliable interpreters of their music; they can though offer illumination and instruction, while other musicians bring other things. Thus we as listeners accumulate experience.
The clarity and body of sound of these early recordings, as expertly transferred by Andante, help the listening process – the precision and fantasy of Fireworks, with very particular detailing and balancing, makes a good start. One wouldn’t guess necessarily that the composer was in charge but there is certainly a distinctive presence on the podium. At four minutes, Fireworks was ideal for a 78rpm side and is given a convincing rendition.
Firebird sparkles, its lyricism is light, a real sense of fairytale narrative is suggested; this 1946 New York recording documents Stravinsky’s year-earlier revision. Petrushka is excerpted (approximately half the score), unfortunately the bustling opening scene is missing, but the atmosphere of the music soon envelops the listener; how relaxed and folksy Stravinsky is with his own music, how human is much of the quieter music, the puppets come alive. This 1940 recording pre-empts Stravinsky’s 1947 slimmer-orchestra revision, and it’s good to have him conducting some of the original.
Robert Craft, for many years Stravinsky’s assistant, contributes a superb essay to Andante’s presentation. He is typically analytical about the composer’s own way with his music. He feels that this 1940 New York Rite of Spring is, despite some unfortunate playing, still the best recording – out of over 100 – and while the sound invariably blunts some of the orchestra’s attack, it also captures a lot of detail. There is indeed a feeling of rightness about this performance, a blend of precision and dance, which makes it mandatory listening. Although listed as the 1913 version, that is the year of the riot-inducing first performance, I remember Robert Craft telling me that Stravinsky revised the score almost immediately after that notorious premiere. Craft hoped that the first-night version could be returned to one day.
The remaining CDs document recordings made in Paris and London. The tang of the instrumental sections of The Soldier’s Tale is to be relished; a group of French musicians parading their distinctive timbres, ones more or less extinct now. This 1932 recording is close, even a little intimidating, the composer underlining the music’s syncopation, acerbity and ’popular’ cut. Ragtime (for 11 instruments) goes with a swing, while Piano-Rag Music, the composer at the piano in 1934, suggests Schoenberg meeting Scott Joplin! From the same year is the composer playing the four-movement Serenade – “musically perfect” says Craft, and who am I to argue!
The movements from the Pulcinella suite, a composite from 1928 and 1932, are rather laid-back, while Les noces, sung in English and recorded in 1934 in London (the Abbey Road studios), is rather tame, even a little cautious, a bit of a mess; the bass is Roy Henderson, the tenor Parry Jones, and conductor Leslie Heward is one of the four pianists. The composer seems grateful to have simply got his musicians through this complex and novel piece although there are some effecting moments in the reflective coda, that is after the drunken wedding celebrations, albeit the guests were on mineral water on this occasion! It’s good to find here the rare recording of the Concerto for piano and wind made in 1943 by the composer’s son. The solemn opening is particularly striking – note the date and place of recording: Paris 1943 – and the performance overall is severe and compelling.
To end the third CD we return to the States, to the West Coast, Hollywood to be precise, for a marvellous account of the Divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss, Stravinsky’s tribute to Tchaikovsky. This 1947 recording with the RCA Victor Symphony – an orchestra of hand-picked musicians (in effect mostly the Los Angeles Philharmonic I would guess) – enjoys excellent sound and should not be confused with Stravinsky’s 1955 complete version with the Cleveland Orchestra. This performance is superbly played, Stravinsky vividly characterising the sections and relishing his own orchestration; I enjoyed it hugely.
All in all this is a fascinating set. One thinks of missing recordings. The good news is that this release is termed Volume 1.