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Igor STRAVINSKY (1888-1971)
Stravinsky Collection Vol. 2
4 Norwegian Moods
Danses Concertantes

Peter Donohoe (piano)
Hong Kong Philharmonic/David Atherton
rec. 4-6. 7. 95, Tsuen Wan Town Hall, Hong Kong GMNCD102 [56.03]
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Listed Comparisons
4 Norwegian Moods

CBC Symphony Orchestra/Composer Sony SMK 46 296(rec. Toronto, Canada, 29. 3. 1963)
Philippe Entremont, Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Robert Craft, under the supervision of the Composer Sony SMK 46 295 (rec. Toronto, Canada, 3. 1. 1966)
Danses Concertantes
Columbia Chamber Orchestra/Robert Craft, under the supervision of the Composer Sony SMK 46 302 (rec. Hollywood, California, 20. 1. 1967) are fairly new to me as is their attractive turquoise packaging into which is deliquescently melted the image of the composer/performer. With jazzy miniature labellings, this might suggest the thirty-something sexist little man who says he likes his cars fast, his beers cold, his women exciting and his music played on. Even so he doesn't deserve this. The packaging is swish till one turns the pages and finds it virtually illegible, with tiny black print on white, with great grey target logos blotting out most of it. Come off it guys, I've had a hard day's accounting and a hard woman to satisfy. Don't do this to me, make it big and sexy and brief. Quite. And for the rest of us, of either sex, make it big, sexy and as long as you like; but I'll bet Martin Ross the excellent note-writer wanted it to be read by more than reviewers.

I wonder if GMN fully know what they assembled here. Perhaps that's unfair. What they've managed is quite impressive, Paul Crossley on Takemitsu piano music, and David Atherton with Peter Donohoe and the Hong Kong Philharmonic for this second in, so far, five volumes.

David Atherton has been lost to us in Hong Kong for so long that it's worth recalling he was once the brightest British hope in young conducting. GMN have done him proud with plaudits, quoting Tippett saying he's 'a conductor of genius'. He's been long admired in Stravinsky, and I can think of only Oliver Knussen today who rivals him in an overall grasp and realisation of Stravinsky. That's leaving aside older conductors like Dutoit, Colin Davis, and Robert Craft. Yet having secured his services, they've taken nearly six years to release this. I tried to find out if they've re-released it under licence, but can find no trace.

This disc is mainly neo-classic and minor Stravinsky; not to frighten him/her off his/her Sancerre. 4 Norwegian Moods is marginally slower, for the most part, than the composer's Sony versions. There, the horns are brought forward to fruitier effect, blowing ripe brie. In the Capriccio Philippe Entremont is on his early brilliant best form for the Craft, 'supervised' by the composer, and is forwardly placed. Atherton and Donohoe match him almost exactly in the outer movements, and take off 23 seconds in the andante rapsodico. Wind arabesques wind around the piano in the composer's version, and the whole is allowed to breathe - not always the case with the composer. The hard dry 1960s CBS sound has been somewhat tamed in the 1991 Sony transfers. GMN and Mike Hatch, the exemplary engineer, have produced at their venue a natural gradated sound wholly in keeping with neo-classic balance: less fruity up-front, more delicate, with a wetter finish. Atherton makes the woodwind chirp, and the piano, just as punchy, pulls its punches sonically. This is more in keeping with the neo-classic/baroque concerto grosso feel of the work. Still, I can't help wondering if Stravinsky intended the piano to dominate more. It's certainly not backward and Donohoe plays with the superb dispatch one expects.

The Ode isn't as well known as it should be. Even the BBC programme the ballets and comparatively little else, bar the festivals. The Ode was written in memory of Natalie Koussevitsky, and, although commissioned by her husband, was heartfelt from the composer too. The static ritual of grief recalls Oedipus Rex and such very different works as Threni, a well as the more neo-classic neighbours like 4 Norwegian Moods.

Danses Concertantes, under Atherton, is more delicately sprung, and here the use of woodwind is telling and attractive. Atherton knows how to phrase Stravinsky, but he somehow, with Mike Hatch and the orchestra's assistance, knows how to conjure that world of dynamism and timeless stasis that haunts even these sprightly sections. Here he takes more time, and Atherton has the silvery edge in evocation. That's not just the recorded sound. Still, these are Danses, and Craft is pretty infectious with a greater dry crump of close-miked bass sounds, swifter, and rather full of dry red wine at this point; as well he might be, under the benign but on the whole uncritical gaze of the composer. Stravinsky had long worked out with Craft just how the work should go; and was happy to let his near-adopted son out of the mould to replicate him. Like some of the Conversations' witticisms, some of this is Craft enhancing Stravinsky with the latter's connivance. If the composer's definitive cycle has the edge, it is in a hard-driven yet always terrifically rhythmic address in the bouncier scores; the heart of Stravinsky.

Dependant on the rest of the cycle, this could well prove one of the finest, perhaps the finest, Stravinsky cycle of the decade if for no other reason than virtually no-one else is recording one. But if they were, I wonder if I'd think too differently. Oliver Knussen and Esa-Pekka Salonen, over to you both.

Simon Jenner

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