Containing three of Stravinsky’s greatest neo-classical ballet scores, this disc from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is definitely worth investigating.
Composed between 1936 and 1957, Jeu de Cartes, Agon and Orpheus neatly account for Stravinsky’s development of traditional forms, renaissance musical themes, and classical legend through the medium of ballet. All three works were the products of fruitful partnerships with choreographer George Balanchine, and were composed in the United States for what became the New York City Ballet.
The opening work, Jeu de Cartes (a ‘ballet in three deals’) has a rather spurious storyline, loosely based on a game of poker. With its fairly conventional, though appealing, orchestration, the score relies for much of its musical power on pronounced rhythmic patterns. The forces of the BBCSSO pounce on these opportunities, playing the work with great gusto. The brass section in particular punctuates the faster sections with resounding aplomb, while angular strings seem to mark out the choreographic steps with exact precision.
The central work on the disc, Agon (a ‘ballet for twelve dancers’) was written at the tail end of Stravinsky’s neo-classical phase. Sparer orchestration, short movements and an abstract plot - indeed it barely has one - mark it out as a transitional piece, composed at the point where Stravinsky began to move towards new compositional techniques, including serialism. The BBCSSO respond to the change in style with remarkable versatility. During the ‘double pas de quatre’ for instance (tr. 5), the strings are appropriately taut and muscular, as if in direct reference to the ballet’s title - Agon is derived from the Greek word for contest or competition. At the other extreme, the ‘gaillarde’ (tr. 9) is an exercise in perfectly poised minimalism, with mandolin and harp playing a ghostly canon.
The performance of Orpheus is more disappointing. Dating from 1946, the ballet is a supreme statement of mid-twentieth century neo-classicism. Austere and restrained, but deeply intense, the score calls for some special handling. Unfortunately, conductor Ilan Volkov seems to miss the point. His reading is too literal and indelicate. It lacks a compressed sense of elegance, and seems to ignore the subtle undertones of menace. During the second scene, for example (tr. 21), the ‘pas des Furies’ resembles yelping puppies rather than the hellish clawing of agitated Furies. The final ‘apotheosis of Orpheus’ in the third scene (track 22) does at least offer a glimpse of ethereal beauty, as Orpheus’s lyre ascends to the heavens, but by then the spell has already been broken.