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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Apollo (1928) [23’18]
Agon (1957) [20’56]*
Orpheus (1947) [28’31]
London Symphony Orchestra/Robert Craft
Orchestra of St. Luke’s*/Robert Craft
Recorded at Abbey Road Studio One, London, 1-4 July 1995 and at SUNY, Purchase, New York, July 1992 (Agon)
NAXOS 8.557502 [77’45]

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This intelligent coupling of three Greek-inspired Stravinsky ballets is so sensible and logical I’m surprised it’s not been thought of before by the record companies. The works are true kindred spirits, from the ethereal beauty of Apollo through to the thornier serial dalliances of Agon, and one would imagine that Robert Craft should be the ideal man for the job. It is my first encounter with the Craft /Koch cycle that Naxos are re-issuing, though if memory serves, some of them had muted critical responses on their original release.

The first impressions are of a no-nonsense briskness of approach which, coupled with a very weighty orchestral sonority, makes a big impact, maybe too big in the case of Apollo. The gorgeous, deceptively simple C major arpeggiated opening is more deftly handled by Rattle (EMI, coupled with a visceral Rite of Spring) who allows the music slightly more breathing space. Likewise, the sheer hugeness of string sound in Variation d’apollon (tr. 7) may surprise those brought up on Stravinsky’s own sweetly voiced Columbia Symphony recording (Sony) but it is mightily exciting. Craft seems to be eschewing any sense of neo-classical lightness, and the clever syncopations in the coda (tr.9) show how a virtuosic LSO follow him all the way.

Orpheus responds better to Craft’s full blooded treatment. He is slightly less aggressive in the beautiful descending octatonic scale that opens the work, letting the music unfold more naturally. A cool, plaintive quality, entirely suitable for the music, pervades the performance and one hopes that this budget disc will encourage people to discover what is still a relatively neglected major Stravinsky work.

Wedged between these two obvious relations is Stravinsky’s last ballet, rated by many as his last masterpiece. Agon is a marvellous score, full of quirky invention and amazingly ingenious orchestration. Simon Rattle used the opening (and closing) fanfare as the signature tune for his Channel 4 documentary ‘Leaving Home – A Conducted Tour of 20th Century Music’ and I like his own personal description of the piece as ‘…a machine, but a machine that thinks. It is like a pocket-sized history of music’. Craft’s is a very swift and energised machine, so much so that things nearly trip up occasionally (try the harp in track 16’s Galliard). But generally the St. Luke’s band is skilful enough to bring everything off wonderfully, and this version is generally better played and certainly in better sound than Stravinsky’s own Los Angeles version, one of the earliest on his Sony box and made only days after the premiere in 1957.

It’s probably Craft’s generally fast tempos that mean all three ballets can be accommodated generously on this single disc. Things never get out of hand, but if you are used to more relaxed readings, be prepared. I’m already of the opinion that Craft’s refusal to linger pays dividends, and the sheer power of the readings, allied to a quite up-front sound, links the works more readily to Stravinsky’s earlier style. There are quite a few different couplings for all three ballets, but for a fiver and all on one disc, this is virtually self-recommending.

Tony Haywood

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