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
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 Canticles.
Variations 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.
see also Review
by Ewan McCormick