Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Symphonies and Concertos
Suite No.1 (1925) [4:50]
Symphony in Three Movements (1945) [21:29]
Violin Concerto (1931) [22:56]
Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, 1947) [9:13]
Danses Concertantes (1942) [19:33]
Suite No.2 (1921) [6:02]
Ebony Concerto (1945) [9:03]
Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (1929) [16:18]
Pulcinella – ballet avec chante (complete ballet) (1920) [39:24]
Elaine Donohoe (piano: sym 3) Robert Johnson (harp: sym 3)
Yvonne Kenny (soprano); Robert Tear (tenor); Robert Lloyd (bass)
Northern Sinfonia Orchestra (suites); London Sinfonietta (ebony); City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (sym 3)/Sir Simon Rattle
Maxim Vengerov (violin); London Symphony Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich (VC)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst (wind)
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (danses); Academy of St Martin in the Fields (Pulcinella)/Sir Neville Marriner
Michel Béroff (piano) Orchestre de Paris/Seiji Ozawa (capriccio)
rec. October 1971, June 1974, January 1978, November 1981, July 1982, October 1986, January 1987, February 1993, June 1999. ADD/DDD
EMI CLASSICS 9072512 [78:23 + 71:08]

This follows fairly hard on the heels of another budget-price EMI twofer of Stravinsky ballets with Simon Rattle at the helm: Rite of Spring, Petrushka, Firebird and Apollo (9677112 – see review). This time the emphasis is on concertante music – the Violin Concerto, Ebony Concerto and Capriccio – and symphonies – Symphony in Three Movements and Symphonies of Wind Instruments. It doesn’t say ‘complete’ on the cover, but what happened to the Symphony in C, Symphony of Psalms, and the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments? Could EMI not have made this one of their 3-CD sets and included those works?

Chandos consider the Symphony in C and even the early Symphony in E-flat sufficiently important to include them with the Symphony in Three Movements, Symphonies of Wind Instruments and le Baiser de la Fée on their 2-for-1 Essential Stravinsky (CHAN241-8). Better still would be a reissue of the late 1960s recording by Stephen Kovacevich of the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, which is, I think, currently out of the catalogue, the Bartók Piano Concerto with which it was released having been reissued with the other two Bartók Piano Concertos (Decca Originals 475 8690)

That criticism apart, this is another recommendable bargain: just about everything here is offered in what is generally regarded as the best, or one of the best available versions. That’s especially true of the items conducted by Simon Rattle, though he has made more recent recordings in Berlin of some of this music. He’s not in sole charge here, as he was on the earlier twofer, but he is in generally good company. There’s good recording throughout, even of the older ADD items, but very scrappy documentation. We even lack an indication of the words for Pulcinella or where to find them – and see below for the fact that even the soloist in the Ebony Concerto is not named. Read no further if the programme and the price appeal to you.

It’s only when one begins to look at rival recordings that marginal doubts set in. For all the virtues of Rattle’s CBSO recording of the Symphony in Three Movements, here, for example, his more recent remake with the Berlin Philharmonic would probably be most people’s preference (EMI 2076300), despite the fact that it normally costs almost twice as much for one CD as the 2-CD reissue. It’s on special offer from several dealers, at around £6.50, as I write.

Alternatively, may I remind you what I wrote in my April 2009 Download Roundup about a rival budget-price recording: ‘It’s hard to imagine better performances of Stravinsky’s Symphony in C and Symphony in Three Movements than those by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble/Robert Craft (Naxos 8.557507), coupled with equally fine versions of the Octet and Dumbarton Oaks.’

Vengerov and Rostropovich are good in the Violin Concerto, but they didn’t bring the work fully to life for me: I wouldn’t wish to make this a replacement for Kyung Wha Chung and André Previn on Decca. Is that recording, coupled with the Prokofiev Violin Concertos really out of the catalogue? It must surely reappear on Eloquence.

My replacement recommendation for the Violin Concerto has to be Thomas Zehetmair as soloist and conductor with the Northern Sinfonia on Avie, coupled with equally fine accounts of Sibelius Symphonies No.3 and No.6 (AV2150 – see August 2009 Download Roundup and review by Rob Barnett).

Nor did the LPO and Welser-Möst persuade me that the Symphonies of Wind Instruments is a major Stravinsky work. Conductor and orchestra were going through a bad patch at the time and seem not to have gelled. On the other hand, I’m not sure that I have ever gelled with this music, even from the likes of Ansermet. It’s not Stravinsky at his most involving and the cool interpretation is probably much more appropriate than it was to the Firebird with which it was originally coupled.

The Danses Concertantes are the earliest-recorded items here, but the 1974 recording still sounds well – better, in some respects than the 1978 Suites. This is pretty small beer, but attractive, especially at the hands of Neville Marriner and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

Suites Nos. 1 and 2 are taken from a 1978 Simon Rattle recording with the Northern Sinfonia which has hitherto been my version of choice for the complete Pulcinella (formerly EMI Studio 7692042). The Suites follow Pulcinella on that recording, forming something of an anti-climax. It’s surely better to have them, as here, open the proceedings on CD 1 and CD 2 respectively. This may be Stravinsky recycling his own music, but why not when it’s so tuneful? The performances set the tone in each case for the rest of the disc.

The recording of Ebony Concerto is taken from Rattle’s The Jazz Album, where it was coupled with Milhaud’s La Création du Monde, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and some shorter pieces. The idiomatic soloist is Michael Collins – a serious black mark against EMI for not naming him anywhere in the booklet or insert, but the performance and recording make ample amends.

Béroff’s account of Capriccio has been described as somewhat relentless, but I wasn’t troubled by this aspect of the performance, for all the balletic associations of the music. In any case, Béroff’s virtuosity compensates, and there isn’t much competition from recent recordings.

Stravinsky was mistaken in attributing the music which underlies Pulcinella to Pergolesi. Just about everything but the kitchen sink used to be labelled ‘Pergolesi’. The resulting sung ballet is no worse for the misattribution. When Marriner recorded this version in 1982, he had already made a classic recording of the Suite, also with the ASMF, coupled with an excellent version of Capriccio. It was still available on Decca Classic Sound until recently. You could probably find a copy if you look around: it’s well worth looking.

The EMI reissue offers the whole ballet in a performance which is also available with the Rite of Spring, Firebird and Petrushka on a similarly-priced Brilliant Classics pair of CDs (8148). It was also until recently on another EMI twofer on the Double Forte label. There’s strong competition from an award-winning performance on a DG twofer with Teresa Berganza, Ryland Davies, John Shirley-Quirk, the LSO and Claudio Abbado (453 0852, with Firebird, Jeu de Cartes, Rite of Spring and Petrushka, available for around £9) and, on single budget-price discs: Pierre Boulez with Chant du Rossignol on Warner Apex (2564 62088-2 – see review) or, better still, Robert Craft with Le Baiser de la Fée (Naxos 8.557503: Bargain of the Month – see review). If just want Pulcinella and Danses Concertantes together, there’s another recommendable Naxos CD which combines them (Bournemouth Sinfonietta/Stefan Sanderling 8.553181).

I’ve long been very happy with the Northern Sinfonia/Rattle Pulcinella to which I referred above and from which the Suites on this new set are taken. I’m not entirely sure that I don’t still prefer it, but there isn’t a great deal in it, with Marriner capturing almost as much of the charm as he did earlier for Decca. The Suite sounds fine in Marriner’s capable hands but the complete ballet, with its vocal insertions, here rendered with aplomb, especially by Robert Tear, is well worth having.

In individual movements it’s a matter of swings and roundabouts between the complete versions, with Rattle’s Overture sounding a little sedate by comparison with Marriner’s; on paper there’s only two seconds difference. On the next track, the tenor’s Mentre l’erbetta pasce l’agnella Marriner sounds a little drawn out. His account is DDD against the ADD of his earlier recording of the Suite and of Rattle’s version, but there’s no huge difference: all three sound well.

Despite small individual reservations, then, you could do very much worse than to snap up this latest manifestation of EMI’s generosity.

Brian Wilson

Despite small individual reservations you should snap up this latest manifestation of EMI’s generosity.