Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Piano Rag Music (1919) [3.17]
Tango (1940) [3.28]
Circus Polka (1941-42) [3.48]
Valse pour les enfants (1917) [0.56]
Sonate (1924) [10.11]
Rag Time (1918) [4.45]
Quatre Etudes Op.7 (1908) [8.10]
Scherzo (1902) [2.18]
Piano Sonata in F sharp minor (1903-04) [28.26]
Chant du rossignol (1917) [22.31]
Sérénade en La (1925) [12.20]
L’oiseau de feu (1910) [11.19]
Symphonies d’instruments à vent (1920) [7.53]
Trois Mouvements de Pétrouchka (1921) [16.14]
Martin Jones (piano)
rec. 25-27 July 1994, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, UK
NIMBUS NI 5519/20 [65.51 + 70.40]
I knew I was going to like this even before I unwrapped the cellophane and inserted the first disc into my player. With a bit of experience, you soon learn which recording labels can be associated with which locations and instruments, and that you might prefer to avoid some just because the chances are they’ll be using ‘that piano with the twangy note’. These things are usually minor features, but can become distracting in no time. By now we should all know that the Wyastone Concert Hall is not only a very good acoustic for piano music, but they also have a very nice instrument. Those of us who know this will also hopefully appreciate the reliably sensitive musicianship and powerfully communicative technique of regular Nimbus artist Martin Jones. In other words, this survey of Stravinsky’s piano music has the wind behind it before we start.
The promise is realised at once, with punchy performances of some of Stravinsky’s most appealing miniatures, Jones is particularly good with the belting tumult of the Circus Polka, but also turns out a good if marginally too well-fed Tango, and the opening Piano Rag Music is like having a bucket of cold water thrown in your face on a hot day – very refreshing indeed. The 1924 Sonate is given its due weight as one of the concert pieces written for the composer’s own use as a performer, with echoes of his other pieces packaged into a technically approachable and fairly compact package.
I’m more used to hearing the ensemble version of Rag Time, but Martin Jones makes the transfer to piano solo work well, with the extremes of dynamic and rhythmic quirks all expertly placed. Less familiar are the earlier Quatre Etudes, whose Scriabinesque flow and often punishing technical demands are a little less successful from Jones, the dreamlike evenness of the inner notes being sometimes a bit rocky. The funny little Scherzo is apparently one of Stravinsky’s earliest surviving works, and serves as a prelude to the large scale Sonata in F sharp minor which was written as a student piece and shows an absorption of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov while also seeming to anticipate Rachmaninov. It seems a shame to take up such a wodge of time with this ambitious but quite imitative piece when the programme for instance doesn’t include the Two Pieces from Pulcinella of 1920, or Les cinq doigts (1920-21). Never mind, it is intriguing to hear where the young Stravinsky’s imagination was taking him in 1903-04. There are occasional moments where bell-like sonorities shine through, and we can hear where the Russian character is so clearly embedded in the roots of his creativity: the final movement could almost be something from a cheesy and melodramatic Shostakovich film score.
CD 2 brings us more meaty fare, with the remarkable piano version of Chant du rossignol pushing the piano to its limits at times. The multiple layers of the orchestration make for a massive set of sonorities, but this is something in which Martin Jones excels, and he gives plenty of exotic colour to the music as well as generating orchestral levels of sound. Hearing this on the piano also brings Olivier Messiaen to mind – and I don’t mean anything bird-related in particular. Given the Parisian context of the score it is not improbable that he might have known it, and if he heard it performed anything like this it would certainly have made its mark.
From the period of the Sonate, the Sérénade en La fits in nicely with other works of the time such as the Piano Concerto, sharing its elegance and clarity of thematic development and harmonic integrity. Martin Jones deals well with the sparing textures and lyrical expressiveness of movements such as the Romanza, and that sense of busy fun in the Rondoletto.
L’oiseau de feu is one of Stravinsky’s best known orchestral pieces, and the opening on piano makes you jump out of your skin. The piano alone can never replace a good orchestral recording, but Martin Jones does his level best, and maintains a convincing high-pressure level of excitement in the opening Danse infernale. The Berceuse is warm and limpid, the Finale creating a marvellous and spectacular sense of climax and arrival, recalling Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
The Symphonies of Winds was not immediately popular when first performed, and Stravinsky’s Russian colleague Arthur Lourié’s 1926 piano transcription was the only version published before WWII. This sometimes enigmatic but highly charged score suits the piano very well, the ranges of the different instrumental sections suggested in the tessitura of the strings, massed or portraying individual sections of the ‘band’. The programme ends with three movements from Petrushka. As with the other ballet scores, the piano version would certainly have been used for rehearsals in the theatre, and those pianists must have had remarkable technique. Even Martin Jones’s hands can only just manage some of the massive chords in the Danse russe. The Tom & Jerry character of Chez Pétrouchka comes across very nicely, with plenty of sparkling and playful charm cheek by jowl with the grim drama of the tale. The final section, La semaine grasse is a fittingly festive conclusion to the programme.
There are a few Stravinsky solo piano programmes available, including a fine recital by Victor Sangiorgio on Naxos 8.570377, though most of the ballet scores appear in four-hand versions or even for multiple pianos. Martin Jones can stand as equal to any of the alternatives I’ve come across, and this 2 CD set is an immensely enjoyable one-stop collection.