Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Various Orchestras/Riccardo Chailly
rec. 1980-2017. DDD.
Texts and translations included.
Reviewed as download from press preview.
[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
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
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
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.
Le faune et la bergère
(Faun and Shepherdess) for voice and orchestra, Op 21
Sophie Koch (mezzo)
(Fireworks), Op 41
(Funeral song – first recording)1
Scherzo Fantastique, Op 31
(Le Roi des Etoiles)2
(Fireworks), Op 42
Scherzo Fantastique, Op 33
rec. live 16-19 August, 20171; rec. 19842; rec. 1994 3
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
L’Histoire du Soldat: Concert Suite4
Octet for Wind Instruments4
Suite No 14
Suite No 24
Concerto in E flat for chamber orchestra ‘Dumbarton Oaks’4
Ragtime, for eleven instruments4
(symphonic suite from Le Baiser de la Fée)4
Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano), Pietro Ballo (tenor), William Shimell
Symphony of Psalms2
Jeu de Cartes3
rec. 19842; 19923.
Violin Concerto in D3
Alexander Kerr (violin)
rec. live (previously released on Concertgebouw label)
L’oiseau de feu (The Firebird)3
Four Norwegian Moods6
Le sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Agon ‘Ballet for Twelve Dancers’3
rec. 1995; Agon rec. live (date?)
CDs 10 and 11
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 –
Lucerne Festival Orchestra (live)1; Berlin Radio Symphony
Orchestra2; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra3; London
Sinfonietta4; Gewandhausorchester Leipzig5; Cleveland