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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Pulcinella* (1920) [36:22]
The Fairy’s Kiss** (1928) [42:01]
Diana Montague, (mezzo)*
Robin Leggate, (tenor)*
Mark Beesley, (bass)*
Philharmonia Orchestra/Robert Craft *
London Symphony Orchestra/Robert Craft **
rec. Abbey Road Studio No.1, London, 3-5 January 1995 (The Fairy’s Kiss), 31 January and 1 February 1997 (Pulcinella). DDD
NAXOS 8.557503 [78:23]

You just know it has to be a winner: Stravinsky conducted by Craft, the London Symphony and Philharmonia orchestras at Abbey Road, and almost 80 minutes worth on the bargain Naxos label. Assiduous collectors may like to note that these recordings were previously released on Koch International Classics. Craft is currently recording the complete works of Webern and Schoenberg for Naxos. His Stravinsky recordings are not only enriched by intelligent and sensitive musicianship, but are also informed by a special working relationship with Stravinsky which lasted for over twenty years.

The two works here are both ballet scores, and both have associations with past composers. Here the similarities end, with Stravinsky arranging most of the material for Pulcinella from a variety of sources, and using Tchaikovsky as the springboard for the almost entirely originally composed Fairy’s Kiss.

The orchestral suite of Pulcinella is more often performed than the complete work presented here, which is subtitled ‘Ballet in One Act With Song.’ Many of the pieces used in the work were originally attributed to Pergolesi, but in fact as many movements come from a Venetian composer working in the 1730s called Domenico Gallo. The libretto is the work of Léonide Massine, who also choreographed the ballet. With the romantic and dramatic synopsis sketched out in the booklet, the excellent notes by Robert Craft go on to explain how, despite the musical numbers lacking correspondence with the dramatic situations, and the vocal numbers being unrelated to the stage action, the ballet still somehow turns itself into ‘an opera with a cohesive dramatic entity’. True, Stravinsky’s keenly detailed orchestration has strong powers of unification, but for me it doesn’t amount to anything like an opera – something for which many might be more than grateful.

Tempi are tight from the outset, and the orchestra is of course superbly recorded. The 1st violins are possibly a little over spot-lit and glassy sounding, which makes for interesting listening in some of the tougher sections: track 5 Allegro assai and the famous Tarantella for instance. Craft takes no prisoners while executing his exciting tempi, which makes for an exhilarating listening experience. His timings are unsurprisingly almost identical to Stravinsky’s own in his 1968 Columbia recording of the Suite, which I have to say does sound the better rehearsed of the two. My only other slight reservation is with some of the singing. None of it is bad and most of it is excellent, but I find the tenor Robin Leggate’s opening solo Mentre l’erbetta a little soggy and effortful. He warms up later however, and acts as an excellent foil to Diana Montague in the momentary Ncè sta quaccuna po’ and is the very model of a modern major general in Una te fa la ‘nzemprece. The famous Se tu m’ami is beautifully taken by Montague, with Craft maintaining realistically brisk tempi, refusing to turn Parisotti’s popular song into grand opera.

‘The Fairy’s Kiss’ concerns an infant, separated from his mother and brought up by country folk, who is dogged by the attentions of a Fairy, guiding his fate so that they remain together for eternity. Craft has it that the young man is the personification of Tchaikovsky, with the Fairy as his Mephistophelian muse. With Tchaikovsky as his muse, the harder edge of Stravinsky’s idiom is greatly softened, and the score is filled with tender, almost sentimental moments, richly orchestrated and flowing into what Craft calls a ‘continuous dance symphony’. The marriage of these two musical giants is of course one made in some other-worldly place where the spirit of the one can collaborate with the pen of the other as if the veil of time were dissolved and irrelevant. It is indeed fascinating to hear Tchaikovsky through the ears of Stravinsky, whose extended development and manipulation of his predecessor’s idiom is Beethoven-like in its scale.

This CD attracts another unhesitating recommendation and collectors should add it to the Stravinsky/Craft section on their shelves. This is turning into an excellent set whose recordings have that modern technical advantage over those in the elderly Sony ‘Complete’ edition, and which yield little if anything in terms of performance.

Dominy Clements

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