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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Rite of Spring (1913) [34:03]
Funeral Song (1908) [12:32]
Game of Cards (1936) [24:10]
Concerto in D (“Basel”) (1947) [12:00]
Agon (1953-57) [21:55]
Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg/Gustavo Gimeno
rec. 2017/18, Philharmonie Luxembourg
PENTATONE PTC5186650 SACD [46:35 + 58:05]

The recently unearthed Funeral Song is coupled on the first disc with The Rite of Spring. It is certainly a nice work to have, but not a major rediscovery. Written to mark the death of Stravinsky’s mentor and teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, it was performed but once, then seemingly lost. In 2015 it turned up. This appears to be its second recording; Riccardo Chailly on Decca presented the first in January, 2018. I have not heard that recording, but this new one is well played and should certainly satisfy Stravinsky completists and the curious. The work itself barely sounds like Stravinsky, suggesting little of the ballets to come just a few years later. Actually, I hear a bit of Scriabin in the music, and perhaps even a hint of Rimsky-Korsakov himself, both composers in their most somber moments.

Conductor Gustavo Gimeno phrases The Rite of Spring very well, and he gets excellent playing from his Luxembourg ensemble. The music comes across with the necessary sense of savagery and prehistoric rawness, but does not go overboard in conveying the fierce and primitive character of the score. Maestro Gimeno generally does not try to impose a distinctive or eccentric view on the music. Instead, he lets it make its own case. Yet, I think he finds much subtlety in the quieter moments and adroitly clarifies orchestral textures in the high-decibel passages.

The Introduction features fine solo work by the bassoon and other woodwinds. The ensuing Augurs of Spring has a weighty yet bouncy rhythm, as solo instruments suggest the more sinister side of the coming spring rite. The Ritual of Abduction is appropriately harsh and threatening, as is the latter half of Spring Rounds. Gimeno draws out many colors and, again, spirited rhythms from the orchestra. He wisely allows a little sunlight into the nervous energy and drive of The Ritual of the Rival Tribes, which sets up the crushing brutality of The Procession of the Sage: The Sage. Dance of the Earth closes out the first half in wild, breathless style.

The second half of the ballet is just as effective: the Introduction is deliciously eerie and weird; the solo strings early on turn in brilliant, deftly atmospheric playing. All the ensuing numbers are well played; the Sacrificial Dance closes the work out in a dramatic and thrilling manner. Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic, in his classic 1958 effort (on Sony, remastered), is hard to beat. But, alas, that performance has appeared either on a single disc with no filler or in an expensive multi-disc box set. Of course, there are so many other fine versions of the work by Boulez, Salonen, Gergiev and obviously Stravinsky himself. But this new one by Gimeno and company is quite convincing in its own centrist way, and features vivid and well-balanced sound. It is quite a safe and satisfying choice then if you like the couplings.

And as for those couplings on disc two, Game of Cards (Jeu de cartes) leads off. Did Stravinsky ever craft a work with more thematic quotations from other composers? The Beethoven Fifth motto appears somewhat altered at the opening of each of the three deals, and more direct quotations of it occur near the end of the last deal. Other themes, in one manner or another, are also stolen from Johann Strauss, Jr., Ravel, Delibes, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven again (Symphony No. 8) and Rossini. “Stolen”, by the way, is the word Stravinsky preferred: “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.” Stravinsky was very adept at artistic theft: his most famous purloined melody is the famous one that closes out The Firebird.

Anyway, Gimeno takes the work at a somewhat leisurely pace, especially in the first deal. The whole performance is a little over two minutes longer than Stravinsky’s 1964 account, which is still my reference recording. Neeme Järvi also has a very good rendition on Chandos. Gimeno leads a suave, subtle performance; Stravinsky’s wit loses none of its bite. The orchestra plays splendidly, with elegance and confidence, in the end delivering a most convincing account of this clever and witty romp. This is a good alternative to the Stravinsky recording and, not surprisingly, it features vastly superior sound.

I have never found the twelve-minute Concerto in D of great appeal, even in Stravinsky’s own recorded rendition. The work has a certain amount of charm, but seems to get a little carried away with its own quirky playfulness. The performance here, however, makes a very good case for the piece. It is nicely phrased by Maestro Gimeno and elegantly performed by the Luxembourg string players. The music, once again, is allowed to speak for itself. If I reach for a recording of this piece in the future, it would be for this one. The sound is excellent.

Agon (“contest” in Greek) is a ballet from Stravinsky’s atonal period. In the early 1950s the composer turned away from his neo-Classical style in favor of one employing serial techniques, then a fashionable trend in composition. Stravinsky did so, in part at least, because his opera The Rake’s Progress (1948-1951) was greeted tepidly by certain critics who were tiring of his neo-Classicism. He was already an admirer of Schoenberg and his music, and thus welcomed the change.
The four-part layout of Agon consists of thirteen dance numbers, a prelude before the second part and an interlude preceding each of the last two parts. Pentatone conveniently offers the sixteen tracks necessary for easy access. The work lasts only about twenty-two minutes, which gives you an idea of how short-breathed each number is. The music is scored for large orchestra, though it always sounds chamber-like. The ensemble never plays tutti, as it is usually reduced to one or two orchestral sections, while the others remain idle. Stravinsky’s style is still easily recognizable. It is just that he now strikes you as using a more opaque expressive language, a more challenging manner to communicate with his listeners. A second or third hearing will afford the uninitiated a chance to appreciate this masterly composition, though some will find it puzzling.

In this account, Gimeno employs moderate tempos and draws a spirited and highly nuanced performance from his Luxembourg players. Hans Rosbaud, Michael Tilson Thomas and of course the composer himself have made fine recordings of this work, but I am quite satisfied with this excellent new one. It is transparently played, subtly phrased and beautifully recorded.

As suggested above, Pentatone provides vivid and well-balanced sound on both discs, and the copious album notes by Stephen Walsh are most informative. The one minor drawback is the paltry timing of the first disc. That noted, if this varied collage of Stravinsky works has appeal to you, this set will not disappoint.

Robert Cummings


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