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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Pulcinella* (1920) [36:22]
The Fairy’s Kiss** (1928) [42:01]
*Diana Montagu (mezzo), Robin Leggate (tenor), Mark Beesley (bass)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Robert Craft.
**London Symphony Orchestra/Robert Craft.
rec. 3-5, 8 January*; 1 Feb 1997**, Abbey Road Studio No.1, London.
NAXOS 8.557503 [78:23]

 

 

 

In each of these scores for the ballet, Stravinsky’s starting point was music by earlier composers. The nature of his response is various, so much so as to challenge any simple ideas as to what ‘originality’ is. Pulcinella was, at the time of its first performance, described as employing music by “Igor Stravinsky d’après Giambattista Pergolesi”. The Fairy’s Kiss carried the subtitle ‘Allegorical Ballet in Four Tableaux, Inspired by the Muse of Tchaikovsky’.

The sources for Pulcinella were actually something of a ragbag. Much of the music was not by Pergolesi at all – though generally believed to be so at the time, as in the case of the trio sonatas by the Venetian violinist Domenico Gallo which were published as Pergolesi’s in 1786. In one sense, none of this matters, for the music is, paradoxically, pure Stravinsky; indeed it represents the very moment at which Stravinsky discovered important dimensions of his own musical - and personal? - identity.

In Expositions and Developments (1962) Stravinsky provides a fascinating account of the composition of Pulcinella: “Pulcinella was the swansong of my Swiss years. It was composed in a small attic room of the Maison Bornand in Morges, a room crowded by a cimbalom, a piano, a harmonium, and a whole cuisine of percussion instruments. I began by composing on the Pergolesi manuscripts themselves, as though I were correcting an old work of my own. I began without preconceptions or aesthetic attitudes, and I could not have predicted anything about the result. I knew that I could produce a ‘forgery’ of Pergolesi because my motor habits are so different; at best, I could repeat him in my own accent. That the result was to some extent a satire was probably inevitable – who could have treated that material in 1919 without satire? – but even this observation is hindsight; I did not set out to compose a satire ... the remarkable thing about Pulcinella is not how much but how little has been changed”. Most of what we need to know about the work is here. What the attentive listener soon realises, however, is how much of a change is brought about by the ‘little’ that has been changed. All the small emendations of accent and harmony, all the subtle, if pungent, harmonic changes produce a work which we can recognise – with, indeed, the advantage of hindsight – as quintessential Stravinsky. Looking back, at the time of Expositions and Developments, Stravinsky himself saw the works significance very clearly: “Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course – the first of many love affairs in that direction – but it was a look in the mirror, too”.

What we are given here is not the more familiar eleven movement suite, but the entire score, meticulously conducted by Craft. As ever, Craft is very faithful to Stravinsky’s score; his soloists are convincing, for the most part, (especially Montagu) and the orchestra copes admirably with the brisk tempi. Excellent value as a reliable account of an important – and entertaining – work.

Its partner here is The Fairy’s Kiss (or La baisée de la fée), for which Stravinsky’s sources were youthful works by his great Russian predecessor, mostly songs and piano pieces. For the most part Tchaikovsky’s melodies remain intact, but the works are handled with far more freedom than those of Pergolesi (or pseudo-Pergolesi) had been earlier. I have never really warmed to this work and Robert Craft’s version hasn’t charmed me into submission. There is an affectionate, nostalgic quality to the exiled Stravinsky’s use of Russian materials and a governing elegance, but the whole strikes me, in this performance, as rather bland – certainly compared to the vivacity of Pulcinella. Not a bad performance, by any means, but not quite as persuasive as, say, that by Knussen with the Cleveland Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon.

Both these performances were previously issued on Koch, in different couplings. They are intelligently put side-by-side on this Naxos reissue, which is supplied with useful notes by Craft and with full texts and translations. Despite my slight reservations about The Fairy’s Kiss, this is warmly recommended.

Glyn Pursglove

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