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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Song of the Volga Boatmen for Wind and Percussion (1917) [1:19]
Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923-24) [18:35]
Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (1928-29) [17:06]
Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1958-59) [9:19]
Concerto in D for String Orchestra (1946) [12:53]
Canon on a Russian Popular Tune (1965) [1:04]
Steven Osborne (piano) (Concerto, Capriccio, and Movements)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov
rec. City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, UK, 19-20 May 2012. DDD
HYPERION CDA67870 [60:17] 

This disc is titled “Complete Music for Piano and Orchestra,” and indeed it is Stravinsky’s complete works for this particular combination. However, it is more than that, as you will notice from the list of works on the CD. All of the composer’s works for piano and orchestra would make a parsimonious disc, so Hyperion can be congratulated for coming up with such a well-balanced programme. Especially rewarding is the appearance of two rare, if very short, items, both of which are just chips off the composer’s workbench. The arrangement for brass and percussion of the famous Song of the Volga Boatmen is from the early part of his career. It captures the spirit of old Russia at the same time as sounding for all the world like Stravinsky. He wrote it for Diaghilev, after the February 1917 Revolution, to replace the traditional Russian national anthem before ballet performances. The other, at the end of the programme, the Canon on a Russian Popular Tune, is a late work that fits well in its terseness with other pieces of late Stravinsky. It is scored for full orchestra, including piano and harp and is actually a canonic treatment of the coronation theme from the finale of The Firebird ballet. Even with its brevity the employment of this theme is readily apparent, though it also reminds me of Zion’s Walls from Copland’s Old American Songs. Stravinsky composed the canon in memory of Pierre Monteux who died the previous year. Neither of these short works is included in Sony’s twenty-two-disc set of Stravinsky conducting his own compositions, so it is doubly welcome here. The remaining non-piano work is the well-known neo-classical Concerto in D for strings that often appears on CD collections of Stravinsky’s shorter works. The BBC Scottish Symphony under Ilan Volkov turn in superb performances of the two rare works, and theirs of the Concerto in D is equal to the best of the considerable competition, including Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Sony), Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (DG) and the composer himself with the Columbia Symphony (Sony).
 
There is also a good deal of competition for the piano and orchestra works, the CD’s main attraction. As with virtually every recording of his that I have had the pleasure of hearing, Steven Osborne is outstanding here. His performances of the two larger works, the Concerto and the Capriccio, bring out all the dynamism and wit that Stravinsky wrote into these pieces. Osborne’s pianism simply sparkles throughout with his clear piano tone and light touch. His balance with the orchestra is impeccable, and Volkov and his Scottish musicians seem to revel in Stravinsky’s score. My favourite until now of the Piano Concerto was that by Seymour Lipkin with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic where you could hear all of the delicious wind solos in the orchestral part while the piano was fine, too. That recording, though, shows its age and BBC Scottish Symphony simply outplays Bernstein’s band; Osborne’s pianism is in another class. Paul Crossley recorded the same programme of piano and orchestra works with Salonen and the London Sinfonietta for Sony where the disc was filled out with a terrific account of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments - arguably a more logical coupling than the Concerto in D on the present disc. While Crossley and Salonen perform the works well, I always found their interpretations just a little staid and lacking in élan. Interestingly, their overall timing for each of the movements in both works is slightly shorter than those by Osborne/Volkov, but they actually sound slower to me perhaps because they are a bit heavier with the works than the present team. At any rate, the sound on this new Hyperion disc is better than that on that Sony, and, as with Bernstein, you can hear all of the delightful counterpoint in the orchestra, some of which was obscured on the Salonen disc. One thing that might raise eyebrows in this new account is the very ending of the Concerto, where Osborne’s final solo is at a faster tempo than the rest of the movement. No one else has done it this way to my knowledge, but it only adds to the excitement and wit of the piece. I found it rather amusing to say the least.
 
My favorite of these piano works has always been the Concerto, as I have considered the Capriccio to be a much lesser piece. Not any more, as Osborne and Volkov have convinced me otherwise. They play the devil out of the work and really delight in its humour. Never was I so aware of the Capriccio’s kinship with the works for piano and orchestra of Francis Poulenc as I am now, having listened numerous times to this performance. Recordings of this work and the Piano Concerto that should be avoided, unfortunately, are the ones Philippe Entremont recorded with the composer on the Sony twenty-two CD set. Entremont’s piano is dry and brittle and the orchestra in both works is sub-par. A critic once referred to Entremont’s pianism as sounding like coal going down a chute. That is certainly true of the two Stravinsky works, though one could argue that the brittleness is rather fitting for these neo-classical pieces.
 
The third piano work, Movements, is from the composer’s late, serial period, and is terse in the extreme. I have never really liked the piece, unlike such other late works as Agon and the Requiem Canticles, but Osborne and Volkov make the case for it as well as any I’ve heard, including Charles Rosen with the composer - the best thing on their concerto disc from the large set - and Crossley/Salonen.
 
It is becoming routine, almost a cliché to say it, but Hyperion once again has not shortchanged the customer in its production values. The author of the excellent notes is Charles M. Joseph, Professor Emeritus at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York and the author of four books on Stravinsky. I didn’t know of his work before, but am now eager to seek it out. The attractive cover on the booklet is of a reproduction of Paul Klee’s Senecio that captures the spirit of the music well.
 
For me, then, this is the best collection yet of Stravinsky’s music for piano and orchestra, and with added bonuses.
 
Leslie Wright 


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