> GMN Stravinsky Collection Volumes1-3 [TH]: Classical Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Stravinsky Collection Vol.1

The Faun and the Shepherdess
Suite No.1 for Small Orchestra
Two Poems of Verlaine
Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet
Suite No.2 for Small Orchestra
Song of the Volga Boatmen
Firebird Suite (1919)

Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano), Stephen Roberts (baritone),
William Preucil (violin), Andrew Simon (clarinet)
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
David Atherton
Recorded in Tsuen Wan Town Hall, Hong Kong (no date)
GMNC0101 [66.02]

Stravinsky Collection Vol.2
Four Norwegian Moods
Danses concertante

Peter Donohoe (piano)
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
David Atherton
Recorded in Tsuen Wan Town Hall, Hong Kong, 4-6 July, 1995
GMNC0102 [56.03]

Stravinsky Collection Vol.3
Scherzo à la russe
Four Studies for Orchestra
Scènes de ballet

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
David Atherton
Recorded in Tsuen Wan Town Hall, Hong Kong, July 1995 (Scherzo),
April-May 1996 (rest)
GMNC0103 [61.25]

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David Atherton’s credentials as an exponent of twentieth century music need no real introduction. Right from his early days with the London Sinfonietta, he conducted most of the modern core repertoire, often in performances of such blazing intensity that they were not easily forgotten. I still think his Schoenberg discs from that period (early ’70s) are hard to beat, and as the booklet tells us, he conducted Stravinsky’s entire output of 152 works as part of the London Stravinsky Festival, which Atherton helped organise during 1979-82.

I like the programming of these first three discs (there are two more volumes), which tries to mix familiar fare with the byways of Stravinsky’s output. The balance, especially on the first volume, seems just about right, with the only real repertoire pieces being The Firebird and (possibly) Fireworks. These regular concert items are despatched with the requisite flair and colour, though the competition is stiff. Atherton’s Fireworks is a tad on the safe side, particularly when compared to Dorati’s amazing account on Mercury, where the virtuosity of a vintage LSO is simply stunning. That marvellous disc also includes a complete Firebird, something I’ve always preferred to any of the suites. However, if you enjoy simply dipping in to this great score, the 1919 suite gives all the best bits, and Atherton’s young players play with real zest and enthusiasm. This first disc is very useful for the other items, some of which are rarely heard, even on record. The two delightful Suites for Small Orchestra (the first of which started out as a collection of piano pieces) show how Stravinsky’s particularly influential brand of neo-classicism goes back further than Pulcinella. His acerbic humour also shows through in the Second Suite, where various composers (including Satie and Casella) are wickedly caricatured. The rhythmic pointing that is such a feature of Stravinsky (in all his periods) is well caught by Atherton and his players, here reduced to chamber scale.

The vocal items are beautifully done, with the real rarity being The Faun and the Shepherdess. These three gorgeous songs for mezzo and small orchestra date from 1906, when Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov still had a strong hold on the young firebrand. The Pastorale (1907) is a short song dedicated to Rimsky’s daughter (Fireworks was composed for her wedding), and the Two Poems of Verlaine betray a marked Debussian flavour. It is with Pribaoutki, written in the wake of The Rite of Spring, that we begin to hear the composer consolidating his true creative voice. Indeed, Robert Craft has cited this collection of four tiny nonsense verses as something of a stylistic breakthrough, and Atherton well understands that the accompaniments to these aphoristic little gems contain all the sharp, piquant turns of harmony that were to be developed in succeeding years. Listening here to Stephen Roberts’s excellent rendition, they can be viewed as a bridge between the primitive violence of The Rite, and the quirky originality of his later neo-classicism. Finally, mention must be made of Andrew Simon’s persuasively idiomatic playing in the Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet (1919), where again ghostly echoes of The Rite (especially the epoch-making bassoon opening) are mingled with a typically Stravinskyan, almost improvisatory ‘folksiness’ that is haunting.

Volume 2 presents another well-balanced blend of works which span the years 1929-1943, a period of immense political and social upheaval. Capriccio is effectively a mini piano concerto, and it is a piece that Peter Donohoe has long championed. This shows in the performance, which misses none of the rhythmic wit, but catches many of the other, more elusive, characteristics in the music. Atherton phrases the string quartet concertino group’s contribution in such a way as to show the relevance to Baroque models. Donohoe’s technique is a secure as ever; listen to the rapid single note repetitions in the finale, which were among many difficulties written to display the composer’s own keyboard prowess.

Though conceived as an abstract concert work, Capriccio found real fame as a ballet, becoming eventually known as Rubies. The other major work on this disc had a similar fate. The Danses concertantes started life in the concert hall, though it is less difficult to imagine this piece being choreographed than with Capriccio, such is the schematic layout and ballet-like scenario. Atherton adopts sprightly tempi throughout, investing the work with appropriate grace and delicacy. It is a marvellously fresh conception, from the invigorating march that opens and closes the piece, to the cheeky little Schubert quote in the Pas de deux.

Like the Danses concertantes, the two shorter pieces were composed in the three years following Stravinsky’s move to Hollywood in 1940. The Four Norwegian Moods are what was left of an aborted film project, the material being reworked into this mini concert suite. It cannot be considered a major work, but affords a glimpse of another aspect of this fascinating composer’s art, and its essentially light, pastoral mood is well conveyed by Atherton and his forces. The Ode of 1943 was one of a long line of Koussevitzky commissions from famous composers, and shows Stravinsky edging towards the spare, rather austere textures of his later period style. It is an intense, moving piece and this performance captures that (and more), with first-rate playing from all concerned.

Volume 3 concentrates on the composer’s American years, and opens with a bang. The Scherzo à la russe was written for the Paul Whiteman Band, though the full symphonic version performed here shows Stravinsky audibly harking back to his homeland. Rather than dance band USA, the Russia of Petrushka is immediately evoked, and Atherton seems content to let that be so – the delicious brass detail and primitive, folk-like melodic material are here given an irresistible forward momentum that is captivating, with the players obviously enjoying every moment.

The limpid beauty of the ballet Orpheus inhabits a similar sound-world to the earlier Apollo, and it is not surprising that it was a huge success. It has since been spoken of as a touchstone of modern dance, and the famous legend, so long an inspiration to composers, here fires Stravinsky to one of his truly memorable creations. Atherton and his forces clearly enjoy the languorous periods of delicate, softly-voiced textures, but never lose sight of the contrasts; the dissonantly violent frenzy at Orpheus’s death (end of Part 2, around 17.40), harks back to The Rite, a point not missed by Atherton.

Less successful was another dance work from these early American years, Scènes de ballet. This entertaining, characteristically piquant work was described later by the composer as ‘featherweight and sugared’, but in fact contains much that is memorable. I love Atherton’s pointing of the three pantomimes (maybe he knows Stravinsky’s own CBS recording here), and again there are excellent contributions from featured ‘soloists’ within the orchestral palette. I also like the famous story attached to this piece, quoted in the booklet. It recounts how the theatrical impresario, Billy Rose, who had commissioned the piece for a tidy sum, became dissatisfied with sections of the ballet, and sent a telegram to the composer, "Your music great success. Could be sensational success if you would authorise Robert Russell Bennett to retouch orchestration. Bennett orchestrates even the works of Cole Porter". Stravinsky’s typically laconic reply, "Satisfied with great success"

The Four Studies for Orchestra seem to hark back to the acerbic, tangy textures of Soldier’s Tale, and is immensely entertaining. The short, contrasting movements display a wealth of Stravinskian characteristics, finishing with a brilliant scherzo entitled Madrid, that is said, with a paradox typical of the composer, to have been inspired more by an exhibition of mechanical instruments he had encountered there, than by the exoticism of the city itself.

All in all, these collections are very recommendable. Obvious comparisons are with the Stravinsky Edition on Sony Classical, which most real enthusiasts of the composer will have anyway. But in any case, these GMN discs have unique couplings which are very appealing in their own right, and are in decent, modern digital sound. The recording venue is constant throughout, as is a curious background ambience, which may be just the empty hall acoustic, or could be a mains or equipment generated noise. One’s ears do adjust, but the recording levels are quite low, so as one increases the volume, so the ambient hum becomes more apparent, particularly in quiet passages. There are good notes by Martin Ross, but no texts for the songs. This is a pity, as they would have taken up very little extra space. As is the way with many record companies today, we are instead encouraged by GMN to download appropriately from the website, something I for one will probably not get round to. Like Andrew MacGregor on Radio 3s CD Review, I feel good old-fashioned texts and translations in a well-annotated booklet is still the most satisfying for the music lover, but maybe I’m showing my age.

Tony Haywood

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