Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Octet (1922-1923)1 [13:27]
Concerto in E flat major, ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ (1938)2 [13:03]
Symphony in C major (1940)3 [27:40]
Symphony in Three Movements (1942-1945)3 [21:29]
1Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble, 2Orchestra of St. Luke’s, 3Philharmonia Orchestra/Robert Craft
rec. SUNY, Purchase, NY, USA, 1991 (Dumbarton Oaks) and 1992 (Octet); Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London, UK, 14-15 November 1999 (Symphony in Three Movements) and 16-17 November 1999 (Symphony in C). Previously released on Music Masters (octet and concerto) and Koch International (symphonies)
NAXOS 8.557507 [75:39]

The phrase ‘twentieth-century music’ may not sound so daunting in the second decade of the twenty-first, but in practice it’s still a no-go area for some. Stravinsky is no exception; indeed, the recent BBC TV staging of The Rite of Spring – updated to include S&M, ballroom, break- and pole-dancers – proves this elemental music is as raw and provocative as it ever was. By contrast, Stravinsky’s dry and sometimes opaque neo-classical and serial works pose a different kind of challenge, this time a more cerebral one.

Enter Robert Craft who, as Stravinsky’s amanuensis, has devoted himself not only to his master’s works but also to those of the Second Viennese School. I quite enjoyed one of his Schoenberg discs – review – but it wasn’t without its disappointments. Still, Naxos must be applauded for reissuing these Stravinsky recordings, which represent a direct and important link to the composer himself.

The Octet for eight wind instruments, premiered in 1923, slots neatly into the composer’s neo-classical period. Cast in three movements the work has a pleasing restraint and overall sense of proportion, an impression reinforced by Stravinsky economical deployment of each instrument and his focus on their distinctive timbres. The bright recording is well balanced, so the opening Sinfonia – Allegro emerges with plenty of perk. The playing is crisp and alert, with a Roaring Twenties feel to the Theme and Variations, not to mention elements of silent-movie-style slapstick. And surely that’s the Shrovetide Fair barrel organ we hear at 2:27? Rhythms are adroitly managed here and in the sprightly Finale.

So, a good start to this disc and proof, if it were needed, that music of the head can so easily engage the heart as well. As for the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto – the last work Stravinsky wrote in Europe – it also takes its cue from earlier music, in this case that of J.S. Bach. Indeed, the first movement has a distinctive, pared down baroque feel to its orchestration but with some lovely, plangent wind melodies thrown in for good measure. Stravinsky’s predilection for strong rhythmic pulses is also in evidence throughout. The recording is on the bright side, but not distractingly so, the musicians always rising to the composer’s quirkier demands. But it’s the central Allegretto that deserves special praise for its mix of delicacy and wit, qualities that Craft really brings to the fore. Even in the edgy urban music of the concluding Con moto he finds an element of suave sophistication that can so easily be missed in all this hustle and bustle.

The Symphony in C was written after Stravinsky’s wife and daughter died of TB, a disease that kept him confined for a time as well. The opening bars might draw comparison with the turbulent opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, but thereafter there is a surprising lightness of touch to the orchestration. Craft is certainly very good at clarifying textures and laying bare the music’s inner workings. That said, he doesn’t allow forensic detachment to obscure the music’s more heartfelt passages, notably those of the Larghetto. One senses this is as close to heart-on-sleeve as Stravinsky will ever get, the Philharmonia woodwinds as deft as one could want. As for the recording, it has reasonable weight, especially in the Allegretto, although the Abbey Road acoustic is rather close, notably in the closing Largo. Moreover, these last two movements may seem a touch unyielding and unvaried. In terms of general warmth and spontaneity this performance doesn’t match Charles Dutoit’s recording with Ernest Ansermet’s old band, the Suisse Romande (now available as part of a 6CD ‘Art of...’ set from Decca on 00289 475 7930).

The motoric rhythms of the Symphony in Three Movements are a different matter altogether, conductor – and players – much more ebullient throughout. Pity about the Abbey Road acoustic, but at least the bass drum has real presence. This is Stravinsky in a more playful mood, albeit with an underlying edginess at times. Craft certainly makes the music sound volatile, but even in more animated sections he keeps a firm grip on the music’s inner voices and competing rhythms. The central Andante – Interlude has some of the work’s most approachable music, yet one senses that Craft concentrates rather more on shade than light here. He also underlines the jagged rhythms of the last movement to great effect, the Philharmonia in fine fettle too.

Some fine performances then, but despite Craft’s unique authority and insights he’s not the first conductor I’d turn to in these works. I’ve already mentioned the excellent Dutoit, but there’s the composer himself in a 22CD set from Sony. That said, if you want these four pieces on a single disc – perhaps as a taster – this is an obvious and rewarding choice. Even the normally erudite Craft liner-notes are more relaxed than usual, making this issue even more attractive to new listeners.

Dan Morgan