Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Symphony in Three Movements (1946) [22:25]
Four Études (1929) (Danse [0:57]; Excentrique [2:01]; Cantique [3:45]; Madrid [2:54])
Pulcinella (1920) [39:10]
Roxana Constantinescu (soprano); Nicholas Phan (tenor); Kyle Ketelsen (bass)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
rec. 26-28 February 2009 and 3 March 2009 (Symphony in Three Movements and Four Études); 5-7 March 2009 (Pulcinella)
CSO RESOUND CD CSOR 901918 [71:12]

Pierre Boulez’s recent tenure as the Helen Regenstein Conductor Emeritus of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra resulted in a number of memorable performances of a variety of works. Last season he led concerts of music by Stravinsky, and this recent issue on the CSO’s Resound label makes available recordings of three outstanding works. The Symphony received a classic reading by Boulez, with the angular rhythms of the opening movement vividly rendered by the cohesive ensemble of the CSO. Stravinsky comes off well in this recording, with Boulez achieving the distinctive sounds with voicings that make the scoring full audible. The dynamic levels are noticeably clear, with the softer passages emerging with welcome clarity. Unlike some of the early recordings of this piece, the present issue benefits from the fullness of the ensemble’s excellent string section, which interacts well with the other sections of the orchestra. The piano is present without sounding over-miked or otherwise altered to be audible.

The second movement stands apart with its more elegiac quality, Boulez bringing out the thematic ideas with a thoughtful line. Without this approach to the second movement, the entire piece can fall flat. Instead, the contrast works well in this performance in demonstrating a different side of the affect behind the Symphony. Some of the jazz-inspired rhythms echo the style of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G minor, but such allusions are fleeting in this well-shaped interpretation. With the third movement, Boulez delivers a powerful reading that works because of the pacing of the opening gesture. By holding back a bit, Boulez allows the sonorities to ring nicely. After the introduction, the faster sections benefit from a similar restraint in the dynamic levels in this precise reading. As the movement builds, Boulez achieves a satisfying conclusion, with the ample sound of the CSO reserved for the final tutti.

A welcome part of the recording is the rarely heard set of Four Études, a piece Stravinsky began in 1914 and completed in 1929. These studies offer glimpses of ideas Stravinsky pursued at various times in the fifteen years it took to complete the work, with some of the ideas resembling works he explored more fully in those years, like Petrushka, and other pieces. Boulez makes the most of the Four Études, which benefits from the intensity he gives to the Cantique, and the symphonic textures of Madrid. The latter evokes the idiom Stravinsky would pursue in the Symphony in Three Movements, albeit with some touches of local color in allusions to typically Spanish gestures within the overall structure of the movement.

At the core of this recording is the full score of Pulcinella, a work heard too often as a symphonic suite without the vocal movements. The complete sung ballet is present here, and it is an outstanding interpretation of the piece, which benefits from the balanced textures and carefully voiced sonorities found in the score. The second movement is attractive for the effective oboe playing of Eugene Izotov and the thoughtful phrasing of tenor Nicholas Phan. Soprano Roxana Constantinescu is similarly impressive in her aria “Contento forse”, which evokes the eighteenth-century style of Stravinsky’s source within its modern context. The third vocalist in this work, baritone Kyle Ketelsen is solid throughout, especially the first piece, “Conquesto paroline”, in which his even range and consistent articulation allow the text to sound clearly through his dramatic reading of the aria. The trio which follows shows the fine ensemble that sets this particular recording apart from others. The operatic qualities of the piece emerge easily, especially toward the conclusion, which also benefits from a warm recording level.

In the orchestral pieces, Boulez balances his sense of the structure with careful attention to the details of scoring. The chamber-music textures that are essential to Stravinsky’s score are full and rich, while the tuttis are sonorous without overbalancing the textures. The brass sonorities fit well into the larger aural image, with the strings always solid and resonant. These elements are notable in the tarantella, where the repeated figures also have a subtle dynamism as Boulez shapes the work. Overall this recording is all the more impressive for being taken from live performances, which point to the quality of music-making offered by the CSO and represented well here. This recording is a fine addition to the Stravinsky discography for the soloists, orchestra and, especially, the fine leadership of Pierre Boulez. This is an excellent addition to the already impressive CSO Resound series.

James L. Zychowicz