CBSO Graf Stravinsky

Song of the Nightingale
The Fairy’s Kiss

Nicolas Hodges (piano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Hans Graf

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 June, 2005
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Following the launch, a week or so earlier, of the CBSO’s contribution to Birmingham’s four-year traversal of Stravinsky’s music, this concert was evidently, yet persuasively lower profile in content and performance. The withdrawal of Oliver Knussen, owing to health problems, saw Hans Graf take the podium. Music Director of the Houston Symphony, his retaining of the same programme was clearly due not only to facility but also innate sympathy with and insight into the pieces themselves.

Le chant du rossignol (1917), the tone poem that Stravinsky created from the second and third acts of his compact opera “Le Rossignol”, is hardly unfamiliar these days, but Graf’s account revealed just how purposeful is its rethinking of the opera’s dramatic potency in purely instrumental terms – such that the hectic initial bustle at the Chinese court and the arrival of the Japanese mechanical nightingale took on an almost tangible (as opposed to stylised) realism, while the austere dialogue of the court subjects prior to the Emperor’s miraculous return to health had an undeniably theatrical immediacy. Most significantly, whereas some performances over-stress the music’s stylistic influence on Bartók and Prokofiev, Graf stressed its conviction in being the very apogee of uninhibited early Stravinsky.

By which token, Movements (1959) can be seen as the apogee of late Stravinsky, where the influence of the Second Viennese School and the Darmstadt serialists are in the most complete accord with the rhythmic and harmonic qualities that had long been hallmarks of its composer’s art. While the piece long ceased to be played as the musical rendering of an IQ test, few performances can have evinced so relaxed an enjoyment of its pointillist interplay between soloist and orchestra. As a pianist who has made sense of conceptually more difficult music, Nicolas Hodges is well equipped to convey its expressive piquancy – and, with Graf ensuring continuity between ‘movements’ and interludes, the result was a delight. In making Movements far less forbidding than its reputation, the performance served the piece admirably.

From the height of Stravinsky’s standing as an avant-gardist to that of his reputation as a declared reactionary, Le Baiser de la Fée (1928) is as purposely Tchaikovskian as, two decades earlier, The Firebird had been unavoidably indebted to Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin. That said, the ballet’s reworking of unfamiliar (and not so unfamiliar!) Tchaikovsky is less significant than is the aura of fragile unreality that hangs over it; once heard more frequently in its Divertimento truncation, but now finding favour in its extensive but never excessive full-length form. Graf’s performance was a model of insight – making less of pictorial associations than Knussen might have done, but finding a tension that sustained the music from the equivocal ‘Prologue’, through the pulsating energy of ‘A Village Fête’ and the varied divertissement which depicts the scene ‘At the Mill’, to an ‘Epilogue’ whose emotional extremes were given a distance that, like the apotheosis of Apollo, is made the more affecting by its very restraint.

The CBSO has done well by its first-time conductors – scheduled and otherwise! – this year. Certainly it could do worse than to engage Graf for further concerts in this Stravinsky odyssey and, if Hodges includes the Piano Concerto or the Capriccio in his repertoire, his presence would surely be beneficial.

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