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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Petrushka (1947 version) [34:40]
Leonard Bernstein discusses Stravinsky and the Petrushka Ballet [20:39]
Pulcinella Suite for Chamber Orchestra (1947 version) [22:55]
New York Philharmonic/Bernstein
rec. Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall),
Lincoln Center, New York City, USA, 5 May 1969 (Petrushka), New York City, 22 July 1970 (Bernstein discusses Stravinsky), Manhattan Center, New York City, 28 March 1960. ADD
SONY CLASSICAL 82876 78749 2 [78:14]

 

Many musicians believe that Leonard Bernstein was at his absolute best in Stravinsky.  Though as a conductor he became ever more associated with Mahler, the paradox is that Stravinsky is an even more evident influence in Bernstein’s own compositions.  Maybe the tight discipline and total lack of forced emotion in Stravinsky allowed Bernstein the conductor to concentrate on musical values – rhythmic precision, tonal balance etc., rather than being seduced by ‘extra-musical’ issues.

Whatever it is, both the ballets here are given splendidly vivacious and stylish performances, and in between the two we have a ‘first on CD’ track of Bernstein discussing the music of Petrushka in its historical and stylistic context.  It’s not clear where, or indeed if, this talk has been published in any form previously; I’d be surprised if it hasn’t, because it is typically lively and revealing.  Bernstein begins by talking about Stravinsky and his central position in 20th century music, then continues with a fascinating discussion of the music of the Petrushka Ballet, and how it relates to, indeed tells the story.  This is interspersed with examples taken from the recording on the previous tracks.  The disc is completed with a much earlier recording (1960) of the Pulcinella Suite, bringing the whole up to a cracking 78 minutes, 58 of which are music.

A fascinating issue, then, though the chief bone of contention for many listeners will be the recordings.  The Lincoln Center, where this Petrushka was recorded, has a famously dry acoustic, and that is very much in evidence.  I confess to liking this very much; it complements nicely the clean contours of the music – its crisp, unpredictable rhythmic patterns and brightly-lit orchestration.  However, it does suffer, I fear, from a comparison with Stravinsky’s own recording from around this time, which has the same clarity, but more warmth as well as even sharper characterisation in the playing.  This is currently available, (also on Sony, SM3K 46291), and features the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble specially formed for the series of recordings the composer made around this time.

Much the same goes for the Pulcinella Suite, with the additional reservation that the playing is not as assured as in Petrushka; Bernstein also allows his players to indulge themselves - e.g. the solo violin in the Serenata - a little more than is needed in this essentially Neo-Classical music.  The Vivo, on the other hand, with its duetting trombone and double bass, is given a rollicking performance; listen out for the trombone soloist knocking his slide on the music stand, track 29 around 1:05.  The Finale:  Allegro assai gets the same treatment, with Bernstein certainly not underdoing the ‘assai’.  Despite the recordings, then, which will not be to everyone’s taste, these performances bring out the conductor’s best qualities, and are well worth hearing. 

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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