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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky – Symphonies and Concertos
Symphony in Three Movements [21:23]
Symphony in C [27:03]
Symphony of Psalms [21:28]
Symphony no.1 in E flat major, op.1 [39:55]
Dumbarton Oaks – Concerto for Chamber Orchestra in E flat major [13:41]
Concerto in D for String Orchestra [11:24]
Ebony Concerto for solo clarinet and Jazz Ensemble [9:17]
Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments [19:12]
Movements for Piano and Orchestra [8:58]
Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra [16:58]
Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra [20:51]
Benny Goodman (clarinet), Philippe Entremont (piano), Charles Rosen (piano), Isaac Stern (violin), Festival Singers of Toronto/Elmer Iseler, Columbia Jazz Combo, Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky, Robert Craft
rec. various venues, 1961-1972
SONY 88875 126242 [3 CDs: 70:15 + 74:41 + 66:19]

Heaven knows how many times Sony and their predecessors have re-cycled these wonderful recordings of Stravinsky conducting his own music. I still have the handsomely packaged CBS originals on vinyl (offers anyone?), and Sony have published various compilations over the years. Indeed the very selection of symphony performances found here on CD1 was on sale back in 1990. Next came the huge almost-complete works issued first in 1990, then again, on no fewer than twenty-two CDs, in 2008 (review; see also Sony's Original Jacket Collection). The latter was then retailing at about 190, whereas Amazon has the current box of just three CDs at 10.99. All right, there’s a gap of eight years; but you can do the maths.

The presentation is bald, shoddy. There is no booklet – at all. All you have is a list of works, movements/sections and performers. No information about the circumstances of composition – of crucial importance with all the works, but particularly so with pieces such as ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ – no discussion of their character, of how these recordings came to be made, or even if this issue is part of a series so that we can expect more boxed sets of this kind.

That gripe made, there’s no getting away from the importance of these recordings, both for their musical qualities and as historical documents. Stravinsky was not a career composer-conductor, like Mahler or Bernstein; but he was, in my opinion, largely unsurpassed in directing his own music. His immaculate rhythmic precision, only rivalled by Boulez, and his acute ear for balance mean that his music really does come, so to speak, ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’.

Disc 1 begins with the powerful Symphony in Three Movements, composed during WW2, by which time he had settled in the USA. This work is probably the nearest he came to re-visiting the world of The Rite of Spring, especially in the opening movement, full of explosive rhythms and driving ostinati. The central Andante is described as an ‘Interlude’, and its graceful flute melody, with its fluttering arabesques, is certainly a wonderful foil to the other two movements. The finale opposes a militaristically clanking main theme with nervous canons and fugatos, culminating in a final blast of ‘Hollywood’ in that outrageous final chord.

The Symphony in C is from slightly earlier, a period of astonishing personal turbulence; Stravinsky lost his wife, his daughter and his mother in a matter of months, the first two to TB, to which he himself succumbed and nearly died. The small matter of the war broke out, and Stravinsky left for a new life in America, taking the half written symphony with him as a calling card. It was first performed in Chicago in 1940, and is a thoroughly Neo-Classical work, delightfully holding up the whole of symphonic form to a distorting mirror.

The CD is completed by the great Symphony of Psalms; we’ve gone backwards again, this time to 1930. Although one of the composer’s first American commissions, it was premiered in Brussels under Ansermet. This performance is a comparative disappointment, mainly because the choral singing is not quite good enough. The Festival Singers of Toronto are very accurate, but sound as they have been drilled dutifully, rather than singing with true understanding. There isn’t the same tingle as we get from most of Stravinsky’s own recordings, although there are some interesting revelations. I was quite surprised to hear him allow a progressive slowing down in the last dozen or so bars of the first movement; not marked in the score, and oddly out of character with the music.

CD 2 begins with the early Symphony no.1 in E flat. I say ‘early’, but it should be remembered that Stravinsky was probably already working on The Firebird by the time this work had its premiere in 1908. The influences of Tchaikovsky and his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov are easy to discern, and the first movement and the Largo third movement really do go on a bit but the Scherzo (marked Allegretto) is terrific, even if this performance has its ragged moments.

After that comes the Concerto for Chamber Orchestra in E flat – better known as ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ after the massive Washington estate of its commissioners, Robert and Mildred Bliss, who wanted a novel way of celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary; certainly beats a diamond-encrusted tiara. This for me is the ideal performance, for it has the intimacy of true chamber music rather than chamber orchestra music. Everything is heard with total clarity, and the rather dry recorded sounded suits the music perfectly.

The Concerto in D for Strings of 1947 follows, another characteristically delightful piece, written for Paul Sacher and his Basle Chamber Orchestra. The centre of gravity is in the first movement, whose jogging main theme alternates with episodes of real rhythmic and textural complexity. The playing of the Columbia Symphony Orchestra is less than immaculate in places, but the style and spirit, under the composer’s direction, comes surging through.

The Ebony Concerto, which completes the disc, is a singular work. Because it was composed for Benny Goodman and his band ‘The First Herd’, it’s often thought of - particularly by jazz aficionados - as Stravinsky’s failed attempt at writing jazz. It’s nothing of the sort, Despite some episodes that could be described as vaguely ‘jazzy’, the music is entirely typical of the composer, as is the way he sets about drawing new and interesting sounds from the ensemble. The ‘Ebony’ of the title refers to Benny Goodman’s clarinet, the not especially prominent solo instrument. This is not one of Stravinsky’s great works, but taken on its own terms, it is a thoroughly enjoyable and likeable piece. I particularly relish the moody Andante, as well as the primordial slime of the finale, in which lurks a bass clarinet of malign intent.

CD3 is given over to concerted works – the Concerto for Piano and Winds, Movements for Piano and Orchestra, the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra and the Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra. These all bring us Stravinsky at his best, and the first one, the Piano Concerto, was an immensely influential piece for Stravinsky’s contemporaries. Its accompanying forces of wind instruments must have inspired Bartk in his Second Piano Concerto, as well as Poulenc in his Aubade, while the elegiac Largo has much in common with the equivalent movement in Ravel’s G major Concerto. Movements, of 1960, is one of his late, Webern-inspired serial compositions. Angular and fragmented, this will not be everyone’s cup of kusmi. For me, though, the fascinating thing is how unmistakably Stravinskian it still sounds. Those little stuttering brass interjections, the wide-leaping piano writing harking back to Petrushka, the liking for the lower registers of the harp, the woodwind Arabesques; all these and more are strongly characteristic, as is the fact that the piece was successfully made into a ballet by George Balanchine - note the ambiguity of the title.

The Capriccio, first performed in Paris in 1929, the composer at the piano, is in many senses a companion piece to the Concerto, though scored for a full orchestra with strings. The version performed with great panache here by Philippe Entremont is the revised one from 1949. The impatient opening gesture introduces a first movement of rapidly changing moods, and that capricious tendency – hence the title – persists throughout the work. Something of a rough ride, but an enjoyable one.

Finally the Violin Concerto, one of my very favourite Stravinsky works. The soloist’s acidic chords that begin the first three movements are in a sense misleading, for this is a largely good-humoured piece. It also features the two ‘aria’ movements of great beauty, though Isaac Stern is maybe a little more romantic than is ideal for Stravinsky. For my money, the best version around is that by Patricia Kopatchinskaya (Nave V5352), but Stern was a wonderful musician, and that shines through – he and the composer have a splendid time in the rip-roaring finale.

By the time I finished listening to this set, the music had taken over, and my irritation with Sony’s slipshod packaging had faded. This is music – and music-making – that makes life worth living.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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