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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Later Ballets
Jeu de cartes (1935-36) [22:48]
Danses concertantes (1941-42) [18:47]
Scènes de Ballet (1944) [14:31]
Variations (1963-64) [5:51]
Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (Rubies from the ballet Jewels (1929) [17:10]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Robert Craft (Jeu)
Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble/Robert Craft (Danses)
Orchestra of St. Luke’s/Robert Craft (Scènes, Capriccio); Mark Wait (piano) (Capriccio)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Robert Craft (Variations)
rec.  Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, 16-17 January 1998 (Jeu); SUNY, Purchase, New York, 1999 (Danses); 1991 (Scènes); 12 April 1994 (Capriccio); Henry Wood Hall, London, 20 April 1996 (Capriccio)
NAXOS 8.557506 [79:07]


Experience Classicsonline

This compilation of material previously issued on Koch International Classics (Jeu de cartes and Danses concertantes) and MusicMasters (Scènes de Ballet, Variations, and Capriccio) continues Robert Craft’s highly regarded series of Stravinsky works for Naxos.  If you didn’t purchase these earlier at full price, now is the time to take advantage of their reissue at budget cost.  The title of this particular disc is somewhat misleading in that it contains only three of Stravinsky’s later ballets.  The others, Apollo, Orpheus, and Agon appeared on an earlier disc.  The Capriccio, however, also received ballet treatment by George Ballanchine. Thus, only Variations, lasting just under six minutes, seems out of place here. 

Jeu de cartes has had a number of good recordings over the years, but none to surpass the composer’s own with the Cleveland Orchestra.  The one here by Robert Craft is excellent as is Riccardo Chailly’s with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on a Decca two-disc set of Stravinsky ballets.  The main differences are in the conductors’ approach to the score.  Craft emphasizes the bold gestures of the ballet with its brassy climaxes, while Chailly is more nuanced.  He tends to bring out the wit in the woodwind solos, while Craft gives the brass the lead.  Both orchestras perform very well and are well recorded, if neither performance erases memories of Stravinsky’s own recording. 

Danses concertantes is one of Stravinsky’s most delightful neo-classical works, which deserves more exposure than it has gotten.  It was one of the first pieces the composer wrote after taking up residence in California.  It is very sunny work for chamber orchestra, with many delightful wind and brass solos.  This Craft recording is about as good as it gets.  This type of clear, airy music suits the conductor to a tee and is worth the price of the CD alone.  It goes with real zest and Craft really relishes the jazzy syncopation in the score.  The orchestra’s playing is faultless.  For a more lyrical, less spiky, interpretation the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on DG (combined with Orpheus) is also good.  However, where Craft really crackles, Orpheus seems a trifle soft-centered. 

Scènes de Ballet is a less inspired work than either Jeu de cartes, or Danses concertantes.  These earlier works displayed Stravinsky’s humor to a much greater degree, including near-quotations from Rossini’s Barber of Seville in the former and Yankee Doodle Dandy in the latter.  Scènes de Ballet was commissioned for a Broadway review, and the composer later apologized for the trumpet solo in the Adagio Pas de deux (track 12) that indeed sounds like Broadway.  Overall, the ballet lacks much of the trademark rhythmic qualities of so much of Stravinsky’s music but nonetheless has enough to sustain interest.    Craft’s performance here is all one could ask for and its inclusion on this disc is worthwhile. 

The next work on the CD, Variations, is one of Stravinsky’s most forbidding works—all six minutes of it!  Coming under the influence of Schoenberg and Webern, especially the latter, Stravinsky not only utilized the twelve-tone system for the work but also composed three twelve-part variations heard four times each.  One could say that he really absorbed the “twelve” of the dodecaphonic school in a big way!  Craft provides a detailed analysis of Variations in his usual exemplary notes in which he advises listeners to give the work more than one try.  In fact, he recommends repeated listening to the piece.  I dare say it would take this to become familiar with it, if in fact it is worth the effort.  The performance here seems fine, though I would have to follow the score to prove it.  The London Philharmonic soloists are impressive.  The one benefit of having Variations on a disc with much more accessible music is to give the listener a taste of what Stravinsky was to become in his last decade.  For a CD with more appropriate material and one of the best of all Stravinsky discs, I heartily recommend Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta’s on DG.  It contains several late works including The Flood, composed for American television and what is arguably Stravinsky’s greatest work of his later years, Requiem CanticlesVariations is dedicated to the memory of the composer’s friend Aldous Huxley, who died three months after Stravinsky began composing the work. 

It is rather a relief to turn to the last work on the disc, the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.   In part the first and last movements of this light-hearted work remind me of the works for piano and orchestra of Francis Poulenc, especially his Double Piano Concerto which the French composer wrote three years after Stravinsky’s work.   The slow movement, though, is darker in mood and more typically Stravinskian.  As in the other works on the disc, it receives a first-rate performance, with conductor and pianist Mark Wait relishing both the lyricism and rhythmic verve of the work.  Paul Crossley with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the London Sinfonietta also provide a convincing account on Sony, a disc that contains Stravinsky’s other piano/ensemble works as well.  

Leslie Wright

see also Review by Ewan McCormick


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