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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Stravinsky Edition
Various Orchestras/Riccardo Chailly
rec. 1980-2017. DDD.
Texts and translations included.
Limited Edition
Reviewed as download from press preview.
DECCA 4851367 [11 CDs: 720:15]

Igor Stravinsky lived long enough to see the advent of miniskirts and disco music, but you would never know that from skimming through most of the recently issued big boxes of his music. Thrust out into the market just in time for the 50th anniversary of Stravinsky’s death, most pointedly exclude the serial scores from his final creative decade—which makes Decca’s reboxing of the recordings of Stravinsky’s music by Riccardo Chailly all the more welcome. The box neatly traces the progression of Chailly’s own career, from vigorous podium lion in the making to seasoned international maestro, an evolution dramatically documented on his two recordings of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Chailly’s Cleveland Orchestra recording from 1985 established with almost terrifying force the talent of this still barely thirtysomething conductor. Even nearly 40 years later it is still tough to beat. Its sheer lustrousness of sound faintly recalls a recording made by another Riccardo leading a “Big Five” orchestra around the same time, but it is the chrome-polished precision of the Clevelanders, who sound as if the ghost of Dr. Szell was goading them from the great beyond, which makes this recording almost unbearably ferocious. The same interpretive outlines can be discerned in Chailly’s second recording, made in 2017 with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, but the cumulative effect is altogether different.

Whereas the earlier recording is unabashedly symphonic, the newer is like large-scale chamber music. Listen to the call-and-response of the flutes and bassoons near the end of “Dances of the Young Girls,” or the carefully calibrated shading of tone colors in “Mystic Circles of the Young Girls.” Yet, as lovely as these displays of musicianship on the part of the elder Chailly and his Lucerne players are, they feel as if they miss the point of the whole thing. After all, should a ballet which concludes in a human sacrifice be made to sound so pretty? It brings to mind Stravinsky’s notorious remark about the earlier of Herbert von Karajan’s recordings of The Rite of Spring sounding “too polished, a pet savage rather than a real one.” Chailly’s is less “pet savage” than nerd outfitted in skinny jeans and Warby Parker glasses who, nevertheless, insists that they are a real savage.

Likewise, Chailly’s recordings of the Scherzo fantastique and Fireworks pale next to his earlier ones with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Berlin Radio Symphony respectively. In the cases of those works, the gains made in suavity of transition are offset by the loss of the characterful playing of the Concertgebouw, especially their winds, which in the 1990s still retained a trace of the Gallic tartness cultivated in the days of Willem Mengelberg. It is a choice between starlit poetry in Amsterdam and Berlin versus efficient (if staid) prose in Lucerne.

Things improve considerably for the performance of the long lost Funeral Song. Perhaps because he was leading its world premiere, Chailly draws a little bit of the energy of his former youthful self, delivering a performance that is dramatically taut, as well as alertful for those moments which augur the work of the later mature composer. While one may not want to do without the heavy Wagnerian underlining of Valery Gergiev in Munich or the lushness of Yannick Nézet-Séguin in Philadelphia, Chailly’s approach remains a benchmark in this relatively brief, but crucial score.

Very fine, too, is the Lucerne recording of The Faun and the Shepherdess. Chailly expertly balances this score’s sometimes awkward mash-up of Mussorgsky and Debussy, although the richness of mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch’s voice tends to draw the listener closer to the Moscow River than the Seine.

The rest of the set is mostly made up of Chailly’s Stravinsky recordings with the Concertgebouw, Berlin Radio Symphony, and London Sinfonietta. The outlier is a zestful live performance of the Tango, extracted from a 1920s program issued on disc about a decade ago. They range from the superb to the serviceable.

One of the highlights is certainly his powerfully inflected, even blunt Symphony of Psalms. The tendency of conductors in recent times to Facetune the edges off the music they perform is especially unfortunate in Stravinsky’s music, where the roughness of rhythm and architecture is the point. Chailly rightfully emphasizes the score’s contradictions—part rough-hewn lubok, part glossy Art Deco stylization of Church ritual—keeping the respective parts for winds, percussion, and voices sticking out against the other rather than blending.

It is harder to choose between the two recordings of The Song of the Nightingale included in the set. The earlier studio recording from Berlin is raucous, splashy, and practically unfolds in a Technicolor panoply before the listener; the live concert from Amsterdam is a little looser and lives a little more dangerously than its earlier counterpart.

Elegant and energetic succinctly describes Chailly’s Concertgebouw recordings of Petrushka (1947 version) and The Firebird (1945 suite). In the later score, the magician’s lovingly phrased and nuanced flute solo in “The Shrovetide Fair” sounds as if it really could bring puppets to life. “Petrushka’s Room” is colorful, cleanly etched, and delicately emotive; while the sparkle of the evening festivities in the fourth tableau (capped by an exuberant “Dance of the Coachmen”) make the broken shards of sound trailing off into the darkness at the ballet’s close all the more moving. In the earlier score, the Concertgebouw strings convey a multitude of subtle dark shadings in the “Introduction.” The full ensemble give one’s speakers a good workout in their roof-raising readings of the “Dance of Katschei” and “Finale.”

On the other hand, the recordings of the chamber orchestra works with the London Sinfonietta, energetic and muscular though they are, sometimes lack the acidic bite heard on the best recordings (starting with the composer’s own). But their well-proportioned yet vital reading of The Rake’s Progress continues to reward the listener, not least for the artistry of Samuel Ramey, whose Nick Shadow is perched between Mephistophelean used car salesman and evil incarnate.

Also less than great is Chailly’s early 2000s reading of Agon, which betrays discomfort with this eclectic music. The Concertgebouw also sound a bit sluggish, occasionally fallible. Stravinsky’s own recording with Franz Waxman’s Los Angeles Festival Orchestra, now over half a century old, leaves Chailly wheezing in the dust. (Sony G010003467992A, download only, with Canticum sacrum).

It was always regrettable that Chailly never recorded Oedipus Rex for Decca. His Italian opera credentials would seem ideal in a score that was as much “macabre present” to Diaghilev as it was to Verdi. This set, thankfully, fills in that gap with a live Dutch performance that more than lives up to one’s expectations. Chailly’s performance is punchy and brawny. Stravinsky’s Verdian references are loving and tartly ironic all at once. The vocal cast is good, but not on the level of the best recordings. Waltraud Meier is an imposing, if wooly Jocasta; Jan-Hendrik Rootering a weighty and distinguished Tiresias. But Robert Dean Smith’s Oedipus cannot approach the bombastic, self-absorbed, and vulnerable interpretation by René Kollo on Leonard Bernstein’s recently reissued recording, for example. (Bernstein conducts Stravinsky Sony 19439854202, 6 CDs).

If not comprehensive, the Chailly Stravinsky box is at least satisfyingly representative. From The Faun and the Shepherdess to Agon, we get a little bit from every period of Stravinsky’s protean career. That there is not more Stravinsky from Chailly is a shame. Listening to this box, one comes away missing the days when Chailly recorded more than just the Austro-German classics.

Néstor Castiglione

CD1 [57:33]
Le faune et la bergère (Faun and Shepherdess) for voice and orchestra, Op 21
Sophie Koch (mezzo)
Feu d’artifice (Fireworks), Op 41
Chant Funèbre (Funeral song – first recording)1
Scherzo Fantastique, Op 31
Zvezdolikiy (Le Roi des Etoiles)2
Feu d’artifice (Fireworks), Op 42
Scherzo Fantastique, Op 33
rec. live 16-19 August, 20171; rec. 19842; rec. 1994 3

CD2 [71:02]
Le sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)1
Philip Langridge (tenor), Neil Jenkins (tenor), Derek Hammond-Stroud (bass), Robert Lloyd (bass)
Le Chant du Rossignol2
rec. live 16-19 August, 20171; rec. 19884; rec. 1984 2

CD3 [71:35]
Le rossignol (The Nightingale)3
L’Histoire du Soldat: Concert Suite4
Octet for Wind Instruments4
Suite No 14
Suite No 24
rec. 19804.

CD4 [71:19]
Concerto in E flat for chamber orchestra ‘Dumbarton Oaks’4
Tango 4
Ragtime, for eleven instruments4
Danses Concertantes4
Divertimento (symphonic suite from Le Baiser de la Fée)4
rec. 19804

CD5 [81:09]
Pulcinella (complete)3
Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano), Pietro Ballo (tenor), William Shimell (baritone)
Symphony of Psalms2
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Jeu de Cartes3
rec. 19842; 19923.

CD6 [70:45]
Oedipus Rex3
Violin Concerto in D3
Alexander Kerr (violin)
rec. live (previously released on Concertgebouw label)

CD7 [67:16]
L’oiseau de feu (The Firebird)3
Petrushka (1947 version)3
rec. 1993.

CD8 [41:23]
Four Norwegian Moods6
Le sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1947)6
rec. 1985.

CD9 [53:18]
Apollon musagète3
Agon ‘Ballet for Twelve Dancers’3
Apollon rec. 1995; Agon rec. live (date?)

CDs 10 and 11 [135:05]
The Rake’s Progress4
John Dobson, Astrid Varnay, Matthew Best, Stafford Dean, Samuel Ramey, Sarah Walker, Cathryn Pope, Philip Langridge, London Sinfonietta Chorus
rec. 1985 – review

Lucerne Festival Orchestra (live)1; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra2; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra3; London Sinfonietta4; Gewandhausorchester Leipzig5; Cleveland Orchestra6

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