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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Jeu de cartes (The Card Game) (1935-36) [22:48]
Danses concertantes (1941-42) [18:47]
Scènes de Ballet (1944) [14:31]
Variations, "Aldous Huxley - in memoriam" (1963-64) [5:51]
Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (1929) [17:10]
Mark Wait (piano) (Capriccio)
Philharmonia Orchestra (Jeu de Cartes)
Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble (Danses Concertantes)
Orchestra of St. Luke’s (Scènes de Ballet, Capriccio)
London Philharmonic Orchestra (Variations)
Robert Craft (conductor)
rec. Abbey Road, 16-17 January 1998 (Jeu de Cartes); SUNY, New York, 1999 (Danses); 1991 (Scènes) 1994 (Capriccio); Henry Wood Hall, London 20 April 1996 (Variations)
NAXOS 8.557506 [79:07]

Another valuable reissue of Robert Craft’s Stravinsky series originally recorded for the Koch Label. Although titled “Later Ballets”, this CD also contains some pieces, such as Variations and Capriccio, that were written primarily for concert performance but which were subsequently choreographed for the stage.
Jeu de cartes arose from a Balanchine commission. The idea of basing a ballet on a card game apparently came to Stravinsky while on his way to a dinner engagement in Paris. Stravinsky and Balanchine saw the dancers as “cards” in a game of poker, manipulated by a malicious joker. The parallels with the rise of European fascism are all too clear. This idea allowed for ingenious choreography but, to Stravinsky’s approval, eliminated the need for romantic elements in the music. Interesting to remember that Bliss’s Checkmate, also using the formalities of a game to reflect the current totalitarian threat, appeared at very much the same time. Craft’s performance seems to lack something of the rhythmic energy which the piece demands, or perhaps the rather weighty orchestral sound and expansive acoustic on this recording militate against an ideal clarity of articulation.
The conductor Werner Janssen commissioned  Danses concertantes for his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra early in 1941. Although intended as a concert piece, Stravinsky cast the work in balletic forms and it was performed onstage in 1944 choreographed by Balanchine. Craft’s performance, with smaller forces than those used in Jeu de Cartes, is rhythmically alert and skilfully differentiates between concertante and tutti passages.
Billy Rose, the impresario, commissioned Scènes de Ballet from Stravinsky in 1944 for a forthcoming Broadway revue. Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin were to dance leading roles in the piece. Billy Rose was generally happy with Stravinsky’s music although he had some reservations regarding the orchestration, going as far as to suggest to Stravinsky that he enlist the help of Robert Russell Bennett to “retouch” the score - a suggestion which, unsurprisingly, the composer rejected. With chamber forces Craft conducts a suitably pointed, lucid performance, although not underplaying the big, sentimental tune in the central Pas de Deux.
The late 12-note Variations were first performed in 1965, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Robert Craft conducting. Craft of course recorded this piece in the 1960s for Columbia (still available as part of the 22CD Stravinsky edition) but this LPO version benefits from more modern sound and technically superior playing. It’s an epigrammatic sort of a piece, Webernesque in its concentration, and highlighting the variations of the original series through changes in instrumentation.
The detailed programme notes provided by Robert Craft almost take longer to read than a performance of the work itself; those with an analytical bent will find them invaluable.
Stravinsky’s Capriccio rounds off the disc in ebullient style and is brilliantly played by Mark Wait. This music, also originally for concert performance, later became one of Balanchine’s most popular ballets, Rubies.
Overall it’s good to have these performances back in the catalogue, especially at bargain price. Craft is in most cases excellent at projecting the rhythmic vitality of the music and his programme notes are equally persuasive.
Ewan McCormick


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