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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, London Symphony Orchestra*/Robert Craft
rec. Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, January 1995* and January-February 1997*
NAXOS 8.557503 [78:23]

The record companies' recent flurry of interest in Robert Craft had puzzled me. Granted, as Stravinsky's longtime assistant, the conductor presumably represents a direct link to the composer's ideas about his music and its interpretation. Still, the discovery that Sony - or Columbia, as it was then - in its Stravinsky series, had successfully passed off some Craft performances as the composer's own was hardly reassuring, given Stravinsky's generally stiff stick technique. A dismal concert at New York's Kaye Playhouse, with Craft leading the Orchestra of St. Luke's in a sort of line-diagram Mozart 29th and an aimless Schoenberg Serenade, reinforced my negative impressions.
Well, it's a pleasure to have those illusions shattered. Craft leads vital, colorful performances of these two Stravinsky ballets - performances that immediately take their place on the short-list for these works.
Pulcinella, based on themes attributed to Pergolesi - some of them correctly - begins as if to confirm the bad old Craft stereotype. The opening statement, stripped of its customary weight and grandeur, is offhand, even hasty; the bassoon solo evinces no particular relish; the Serenata, with its no-nonsense pacing of the siciliana rhythm, doesn't breathe. But a bright upward swoop leads to a perky, strongly-accented Scherzino with woodwind colors to the fore, while the phrasing of the Andantino section is "Classically" cool and poised. All the more extroverted movements are ear-catching: the zippy scherzando mood of the Allegro assai (track 5) has an infectious, undulating swing; there's a bounding exuberance to 'Nce sta quaccuna po' (track 9); the tarantella rhythm in track 13 comes across clearly. Elsewhere, Craft's emphasis on clarity serves the better to draw Stravinsky's variety of colors and textures to the fore. And, while he eschews conventional expressive gestures, there's ample scope for nuance and shading. The oboe solo in the Gavotta with variations (track 16) has a real sweetness; the divided strings conjure a resplendent effect in the finale; Diana Montague inflects Se tu m'ami movingly.
It's Montague, in fact, who takes the vocal honors with her creamy, plangent timbre and poised, unstrained vocal production. Mark Beesley proffers a solid but not cavernous bass; he copes extremely well, if not without some strain, with the demanding high tessitura of Con queste paroline; which, according to the conductor's note, the vocal score incorrectly prints down an octave. Tenor Robin Leggate's performance is an enigma. He doesn't sing heavily, but his thick vowel formations make him dominate the unisons of Sento dire and produce some stiff phrasing elsewhere. Strangely, in Una te fa and the Minuet, he sings with a brighter, narrower tone that's both better focused and more flexible - was he in such markedly different vocal condition on the two recording days?
Like Pulcinella, The Fairy's Kiss is based on older music. Here Stravinsky, drawing mostly on themes from Tchaikovsky's small piano pieces, develops them and augments them with original connective tissue to produce what sounds like a new, authentic Tchaikovsky ballet - although the multilayered texture about four minutes into Scene II suggests a Tchaikovsky who knew Petrushka! Craft doesn't try to force this romantic score into an inappropriate neo-classical aesthetic, as his mentor was sometimes wont to do; he allows the themes to unfold in a natural, singing manner, without exaggerated rhetoric or loss of clarity. The woodwind octaves near the start are eerily yearning; a haunting Russian melancholy inhabits the minor-key melodies.
Each of the excellent orchestras leaves a distinctive stamp on its performance - though, given the vagaries of personnel shifts and the time elapsed between sessions, some of the same players may well have participated in both. The Philharmonia brings splendid rhythmic address and sharply etched textures suit the score's neo-classical cast, with rich, round horns and brazen brasses offering added impact. The LSO, in turn, fleshes out The Fairy's Kiss with an emotionally and texturally richer sonority. The woodwind sound, rounder and more diffuse than the Philharmonia's, perfectly suits the material. The principal horn is superb in the high-lying phrases, the solo string interpolations in Scene II are vibrant; the soft brass chorales are clear and pillowy.
Naxos indicates that "[t]hese recordings were previously released on Koch International Classics"; I never encountered that earlier issue, but I'm certainly glad these performances are back, and at low Naxos prices to boot. The sound is excellent, by the way, with a subtle ambience coloring the woodwinds in The Fairy's Kiss, and the booklet considerately includes Italian texts and English translations for the songs in Pulcinella.
Stephen Francis Vasta

see also reviews by Dominy Clements and Glyn Pursglove


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