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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky – The Original Jacket Collection
rec. 1946-1965. stereo. disc 9 only: mono.
Full contents listed at end of review
SONY-BMG SX9K64136 [9 CDs: 31:34 + 43:57 + 48:44 + 53:29 + 46:59 + 53:29 + 43:45 + 52:16 + 39:35]
Experience Classicsonline

What Decca did for Britten CBS (now Sony-BMG) did for Stravinsky.

This set has, amongst other things, the cachet of nostalgia to commend it but then that's true of the whole of Sony-BMG’s Original Jacket Collection.

Substantially the present full price set derives from the plush and extremely expensive Stravinsky Edition issued by Sony Classics in the late 1990s -  that’s the one housed in a thick plastic box. That huge set (SX22K 46290, 22-CDs of his complete stereo recordings) re-emerged earlier this year in a card wallet box at bargain price. The price advantage is gained by sacrificing jewel cases, notes and texts (see review).


Absent from that huge set are: Pastorale for violin and wind quartet (Szigeti with Stravinsky and wind quartet); Pastorale for voice and piano; Three Easy Pieces and Five Easy Pieces for four-hands piano; The Star-Spangled Banner (arr. Stravinsky); Fanfare for a new Theatre (Heinrich and Nagel) and Chanson Russe for violin and piano (Szigeti and Stravinsky). You can in fact now hear the last three in the present ‘Original Jacket Collection’ box. 

The concept of the ‘Original Jacket Collection’ is clear enough. Offer CDs in a set with each disc substantially filled exactly as per the CBS LPs first issued in the 1950s and 1960s. Each disc is inside a very thick hard card sleeve - no budget shortcuts here - which reproduces at jewel box scale the look and feel and timing of the original LP. This extends to including the old MS or ML vinyl catalogue numbers and the notes on the reverse of the original black disc sleeve. The result will take some collectors back some half a century into a very different classical recording world. We forget how narrow it was. The choice of music and of alternative recordings amongst which we now pick and choose would have been unthinkable then.

The Rite of Spring on CD 1 still sounds completely vital, agreeably boisterous and with textures that are ear-ticklingly and delightfully coarse. Even so, the scimitar tone of the quietly cycling and blending strings in Introduction (tr. 9) is subtle and pleasing to the ear. Hypnotically fascinating stuff. CD1 also includes some multimedia content.

In the Firebird suite the recording is full of life observed close-up but the effect is entrancing; similarly for The Charlatan's Booth in the Petrushka Suite. The tart soloistic dialogues of The Russian Dance offer chiselled rhythmic patterning leavened with humanity.

The composer's Petrushka is pressed forward to the point where the orchestra are driven close to breaking point. Yet they come through flags flying. These analogue recordings are now between forty and fifty years old so the impact is not going to be all that it now can be. That said the effect remains surprisingly visceral. The transition in Le Sacre from the preceding thunderous stomp into the Largo (tr. 25) is to be savoured in a spectral glory redolent of Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole. The concert suites from Petrushka and Firebird remind us that the composer intended his music to make its way into concert programmes as well as to be danced. The grumping and shrieking nightmare of the Dance of the Peasant and the Bear from Petrushka is sharply characterised while The Dance of the Coachmen has a satisfying guttural grunt (tr. 10).

The playing throughout this set is pretty astonishing. This is certainly the case in the chiselled and tangy March from Soldier's Tale. The brassy gruffness of the Vivo (Pulcinella) leaps out at the listener and stereo separation adds a gritty reality (tr. 20 CD 7).

CD 3 includes the Orff-influencing Symphony of Psalms. This is well done although some listeners may blanch at the sophomore accents of the Canadian choir. The sound of the orchestra is caught with that peculiar and pleasing combination of close-up plangency and fine shark-skin abrasion. This is followed by a spick and span Symphony in C with its intricate patterning and irresistible rhythmic ‘hooks’ nicely brought into a sharp close focus. The finale catches the half growl half squat grunt of the brass and of the deeper strings.

In this box we get the full Firebird ballet as well as the complete Rite. The Firebird is the original 1910 orchestration in all its unexpurgated  splendour or perhaps I should say ‘splendor’.     Those slaloming violins in the introduction recall the same effect in Ma mère l'Oye. Stravinsky’s version of the Dialogue de Kastchei brings out the forward connection with his next major ballet score Petrushka more than any other version I have heard. In the Intercessions des Princesses one hears music stand pages turning but by then it does not matter in the least.  By the time we get to the final section we are convinced that this is a  superb version - which it is.

The Fanfare for two trumpets is raw and coarse. The Lear setting is querulous and charts a Pierrot course between lunar zaniness and sweet dissonant carolling. The three movement Septet seethes with typically ear-inveigling charm - all mildly dissonant but not hard work. On the other hand Stravinsky dives into the deep end of atonality with the Five Movements for piano and orchestra. Fragmentation and rhythmic angularity are the order of the day here.  For the first time in this work I noticed the unworrying distant analogue hiss. The Eliot setting, The Dove Descends  is concentrated and slowly unfolds with tart dissonances encompassed - nothing as extreme as the Movements. The Double Canon - In Memoriam Raoul Dufy (string quartet) is Bachian in its steady gait but Schoenbergian in its density. Angularity can again be found in the Epitaphium for flute, harp and clarinet. The Elegy for JFK is sung by Cathy Berberian and was written shortly after the Kennedy assassination in Dallas; good to see Charles Russo's name in the ensemble. Sermon, A Narrative and A Prayer is dodecaphonic with plenty of angularity for singers and orchestra.

Histoire du Soldat is once again distinguished by tight rhythmic playing and pin sharp accuracy not subordinated to character. A rather bleak atmosphere is asserted in the Pastorale. The Marche Royale has clearly taken something from Kurt Weill - a touch of sleaze. The blat and blast of Danse du diable is irresistible.  Surprisingly in the Sinfonia to the Pulcinella Suite there is a fatty weight to the playing of the overture and that heaviness carries over into the cool Serenata. The Tarantella is suitably flighty and so magnificently recorded that foot-tapping is likely to be inescapable – it almost suggests the Irish threshing floor but there’s a hint of Galicia in there as well. The Finale flies on wings of gold leaf with time for an amorous smile. Even so I have heard more fleetly and airily weighted versions than this.

The Preludium for Jazz band is fun with wah-wah brass, finely coarsened solos from the strings and entrancing percussion. Israel Baker (violin) is used extensively in Project Stravinsky and he can be heard in the ever-so-short Pastorale - Chants sans Paroles with its gurgling echoes of French folk music. The grate and chime of Ragtime with the prominent part for cimbalom is treasurable. The little Octet for wind instruments is typically gratifying - Stravinsky always called forth distinctive writing for wind instruments. The Tango has a glum and even mildly inimical Russian tone. The guitar perhaps evokes a balalaika. It's an odd disjointed tango - fascinating though. The little Concertino for 12 instruments is in a single track and dates from 1920. It started out when first written on holiday in Brittany as the Concertino for String quartet. The Ebony Concerto derives from an invitation from Woody Herman. It’s a gritty collage of shards of jazz as viewed through a distorting prism - grating and ear-mesmerising. Interestingly it seems less a clarinet concerto here and more a concerto for jazz orchestra with a conspiring jazz clarinet. All credit to Benny Goodman for recording it here in stereo in 1965.

The next disc is of choral music. It launches with The Star Spangled Banner which remains very familiar apart from some typically tart touches in the brass. Interestingly it was recorded in Toronto. The Four Russian Peasant Songs for choir with four Horns makes for a flavour-some offering try. If you enjoy Canteloube's Chants de l'Auvergne surprise yourself with Tilim Bom - fully of bright, eager, light and rhythmic excitement. In the early mystical-ecstatic Le Roi des Etoiles Stravinsky sets words by Konstantin Balmont. Babel (orchestra and narrator) tells the tale of the Tower of Babel and its great fall. It has a high-flown Charlton Heston air to it. At only 5:13 it does not outstay its welcome. The narrator is John Colicos. The Ave Maria, Credo and Pater Noster ­ - all very brief - recall the Russian Orthodox tradition. The disc ends with the Chorale and Variations founded on Bach's Vom Himmel Hoch. They are sprightly and smilingly suave as the lovely 'singing' of the oboe and harp in Variation II.

The final CD is entitled Meet the Composer. It takes us back to mono recordings made in New York 1945-46. The St Vitus volatility and Dukas magic of Fireworks declares an early work busy assimilating Rimsky's gunpowder and star-bursts. The Ode in three movements - Eulogy - Eclogue - Epitaph - is a Koussevitsky commission from 1943. It is cool and full of graceful detail with the composer obviously feeling - in a generalised way - the magnetic pull of dissonance. The Four Norwegian Moods are not that easy to identify as Stravinsky. It seems they were originally planned for a Broadway revue. The Intrada has a folksy sturdiness in the brass. Grieg's benign smile passes through the pages of the Song and can also be felt in the goblin romp of the Wedding Dance. The Circus Polka is much more uproarious.

To compare with Benny Goodman's Ebony Concerto in the same set we also get a wonderful contemporary Ebony from Woody Herman and His Orchestra. Russian Maiden's Song ends the box with the last track on the last disc - Szigeti and the composer sweetly tracking and tracing slavonic melancholy.

Perhaps Sony-BMG should now look at the example set by Hänssler and offer an IPod with their complete Stravinsky, Berg, Webern, Schoenberg, Varese - not to forget their superb but ignored Ruggles orchestral recordings made by the brilliant Michael Tilson Thomas with the Buffalo Philharmonic in the early 1970s. It might well do even better than Hänssler’s complete Bach Ipod.

The text of the 76 page booklet is in English, German and French.

Wonderfully evocative of the LP era and of the mass market discovery of the many facets of Stravinsky in the 1960s.

Rob Barnett

Detailed contents list:

MS 6319 (SMK 64138) Stravinsky Conducts [31:34]
Le Sacre du printemps
Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky CD-Extra included on this disc. Complete liner notes and selected lyrics from the original LPs, including contributions from the composer.

MS 6328 (SMK 64139) Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky [43:57] The Firebird (complete ballet) Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky

MS 6548 (SMK 64151) Stravinsky Conducts [48:44]

Symphony of Psalms Festival Singers of Toronto Symphony in C CBC Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky

MS 7011 (SMK 64140) Stravinsky Conducts [53:29]
Firebird Suite (1945 version) Petrushka Suite (1945 revised version) Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky

MS 7054 (SMK 64192) Recent Stravinsky Conducted by the Composer [46:59]
Fanfare for Two Trumpets Robert Heinrich and Robert E. Nagel (trumpets) (first CD release) The Owl and the Pussy-Cat Poem by Edward Lear Adrienne Albert (soprano); Robert Craft (piano) Septet Columbia Chamber Ensemble/Igor Stravinsky Movements for Piano and Orchestra Charles Rosen (piano); Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky Anthem ("The Dove Descending Breaks the Air") Words By T.S. Eliot The Festival Singers of Toronto/Elmer Iseler Double Canon for String Quartet Israel Baker and Otis Igleman (violins); Sanford Schonbach (viola); George Neikrug (cello) Epitaphium Arthur Gleghorn (flute); Kalman Bloch (clarinet); Dorothy Remsen (harp) Elegy for J.F.K. Poem By W.H. Auden Cathy Berberian (mezzo); Paul E. Howland, Jack Kreiselman and Charles Russo (clarinets) A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer Shirley Verrett (mezzo); Loren Driscoll (tenor); John Horton (speaker); CBC Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky  

MS 7093 (SMK 64148) Stravinsky Conducts [53:29]
L'Histoire du soldat Suite Columbia Chamber Ensemble/Igor Stravinsky Pulcinella Suite Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky  

MS 30579 (SMK 64149) Stravinsky Conducts Music for Chamber and Jazz Ensembles [43:45]

for Jazz Ensemble Columbia Jazz Combo/Igor Stravinsky Pastorale Israel Baker (violin); Columbia Chamber Ensemble/Igor Stravinsky Rag-time for 11 Instruments Toni Koves (cimbalom); Columbia Chamber Ensemble/Igor Stravinsky Octet for Wind Instruments Columbia Chamber Ensemble (newly remastered for this edition) Tango Columbia Jazz Combo, Igor Stravinsky Concertino for 12 Instruments Ebony Concerto Benny Goodman (clarinet); Columbia Jazz Combo/Igor Stravinsky  

M 31124 (SMK 64150) Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky - Choral Music [52:16]
The Star Spangled Banner (Harmonized and orchestrated by Igor Stravinsky) Toronto Festival Singers; CBC Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky (first CD release) Four Russian Songs for Voice, Flute, Harp and Guitar Adrienne Albert (soprano); Louise di Tuillio (flute); Dorothy Remsen (harp); Laurindo Almeida (guitar) Four Russian Peasant Songs for Equal Voices with Four Horns Gregg Smith Singers Renard ("The Fox") (1962 version) George Shirley, Loren Driscoll (tenors); William Murphy (baritone); Donald Gramm (bass); Toni Koves (cimbalom) Columbia Chamber Ensemble/Igor Stravinsky Zvezdoliki ("Le Roi des étoiles") The Festival Singers of Toronto/Elmer Iseler; CBC Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky Babel John Colicos (narrator); CBC Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky Ave Maria Festival Singers of Toronto/Elmer Iseler; Igor Stravinsky Credo (1964 version) Gregg Smith Singers/Igor Stravinsky Pater Noster Festival Singers of Toronto/Elmer Iseler; Igor Stravinsky Bach: Chorale Variations on the German Christmas carol "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her" (Arranged by Igor Stravinsky) Festival Singers of Toronto/Elmer Iseler; CBC Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky  

ML 4398 (SMK 64196) "Meet the Composer" - Igor Stravinsky Conducting and Playing His Own Works [39:35]

, Op.4 (recorded January 28, 1946) Ode; Four Norwegian Moods; Circus Polka New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky Ebony Concerto (recorded August 19, 1946) Woody Herman Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky Russian Maiden's Song (recorded May 9, 1946) Igor Stravinsky (piano); Joseph Szigeti (violin) First release of these mono 1940s New York Philharmonic recordings and others, newly remastered from original sources.


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