Stravinsky – Jeu de cartes … Agon … Orpheus – BBCSSO/Volkov [Hyperion]

0 of 5 stars

Jeu de cartes

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Recorded 14-17 May 2009 in City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: January 2010
Duration: 72 minutes



With so much attention paid to the Diaghilev-commissioned works amongst recordings of Stravinsky’s ballets, it is gratifying to have a collection looking at some of his lesser-performed dance-works.

This is a well thought out release, moving from a crisp performance of Jeu de cartes through to the neo-classicism of Orpheus via Agon, which stands on the cusp of atonality and effectively forms the gateway to the composer’s more acerbic late period.

Ilan Volkov clearly understands the potential of each of the three scores, and communicates their stories and scenes with grace, charm and no little flair. The fanfares in Jeu de cartes, each indicating the start of a new deal in the game of cards, have a sense of occasion that is maintained throughout, with the BBC Scottish Symphony’s woodwind and brass on particularly fine form. After a brightly voiced opening Volkov pushes forward through a sprightly ‘Dance of the Joker’, while in the second part the gurgling clarinets in the ‘March of the Hearts and Spades’ are an especial treat.

Agon, too, has vivid detail, and here each nuance of the composer’s more economical scoring is captured by the excellent recording. The ‘Gaillarde’ exploits the unusual instrumental textures of harp and mandolin against woodwind, while its coda is meticulously performed, punctuated by crisp piano interjections, brass stabs and violin pizzicatos. Volkov keeps the harmonic tension alive throughout, for while Agon is often described as an atonal work, it nonetheless has strong tonal implications. When these are unresolved in the recurring ‘Interludes’, the double basses resolutely failing to reach an agreement, a feeling of tension is generated, and is not entirely resolved by the softly-voiced ending. Stravinsky’s speed of harmonic and melodic thought, outlined in Stephen Walsh’s customary insight in the booklet note, is winningly realised here in lean and compact melodic lines.

So different is the music of Orpheus that it could at times be that of a different composer, and Stravinsky himself fell out of favour with the ballet on account of its length. This interpretation proves it possible to reach a sense of balance in the three parts, and from the soft, stepwise activity of its opening, thoughtfully given out by Volkov, it is clear a lot of thought has gone into this interpretation.

Again the BBC Scottish woodwinds are excellent, especially in the affecting oboe duet within the second scene. As the shimmering colours of Stravinsky’s oscillating loops in the faster music are beautifully caught, the gathering tension here is very different to that of Agon, taking place over a much broader time-period yet still carefully calculated. When the music finally explodes, with a carefully planned discharge in the third scene, it is strangely moving when the opening material removes.

With Hyperion planning a second instalment of Stravinsky ballets from this team, it is to be hoped that Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish SO show the same insight and attention to detail that mark out these three interpretations. By keeping them apart from their more illustrious forebears, they provide an ideal enhancement of Stravinsky’s works for the stage.

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