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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Divertimento (symphonic suite from Le Baiser de la Fée) (1934, 1949) [23:41]
Suite No 1 [4:38]
Suite No 2 [6:20]
Octet for Wind Instruments (1922/23) [14:48]
Histoire du Soldat - Suite (1920) [25:33]
London Sinfonietta/Riccardo Chailly
rec. 7 February 1980, Kingsway Hall, London
Download or stream only.
DECCA ENTERPRISE 4330792 [75:41]

Before completing my review of the recent 22-CD Decca Eloquence set of Gillian Weir’s Decca and BBC recordings – review – I whetted our readers’ appetite with a single album from the set. I’m currently working on a smaller, but important set of 11 CDs, this time from the Decca parent company, of Riccardo Chailly’s Stravinsky, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of his death (4851367 – details from Decca).

Once again, rather than make readers wait for a long and rambling review – that’s on its way – I’m making an interim recommendation of one recording and referring briefly to the whole set. It’s advertised as a limited edition, and these sets have a habit of disappearing quickly, even if not described as limited.

You may not associate Chailly with Stravinsky; the final (2010) edition of the Penguin Guide lists only his contribution to a 2-CD Decca Duo. So what is so special about this recording? Set down by Ricordi in 1980, and subsequently taken up by Decca, I believe that it was Chailly’s first Stravinsky album. The contents are spread across several CDs in the 22-CD set, but the original album remains available as a download, albeit that it’s no longer as inexpensive as when it was on mid-price disc, and comes without a booklet. In fact, at around £11 in lossless sound, it compares poorly in comparison with the set, target price £38, so you may prefer to stream it, perhaps from Naxos Music Library, where you can also find the single CDs – here – which have been amalgamated in the box.

If you already know the major ballets, this programme could well be your first stop. The opening Divertimento reminds us of Stravinsky’s admiration for Tchaikovsky; it’s a distillation of his ballet Le Baiser de la Fée, the fairy’s kiss, composed in 1928 and revised in 1950. Based on a story by Hans Christian Anderson, the score orchestrates several themes by Tchaikovsky from piano pieces and songs. The four-movement suite, composed in 1934 and revised in 1949, is delightful. I first got to know it from an RCA Victrola LP, courtesy of Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, coupled with Richard Strauss’ Le bourgeois gentilhomme suite.

The Reiner is still available to stream or download, coupled with Hovhaness Mysterious Mountain and Prokofiev Lieutenant Kijé Suite (G0100017172197, around £12 in lossless sound, no booklet). Despite his reputation for driving music hard, Reiner’s recording displays plenty of affection for this piece, though he pushes the opening sinfonia a little faster than Chailly. Perhaps Reiner swaggers a little more, and the analogue sound has come up very well for its age, but there’s very little in it. I could happily live with both.

Fans of SACD and hi-res downloads may choose a 2004 Pentatone recording on which the Divertimento is paired with music by Tchaikovsky, his Suite No 3, from the Russian National Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski (PTC5186061, a well-deserved key/four-star recommendation in the Penguin Guide). The download from Pentatone can be obtained in 16- and 24-bit, the latter in stereo, which I listened to, and surround; for real hi-res fans, it’s also in DSD. We seem not to have reviewed it, but, in Pentatone’s superb sound, it’s well worth considering. As an odd bonus, if you buy one of the higher quality downloads, the mp3 tracks are available too.

Stravinsky plays second fiddle to Tchaikovsky and, though there’s logic to playing the works in chronological order, Jurowski’s very fine account of the Divertimento inevitably sounds a little down-beat, even a little tentative, after the exciting Theme and Variations finale of the Tchaikovsky, which receives one of the best performances on record. Like Reiner and Chailly, he steers an ideal middle course between the romanticism of the source material and Stravinsky’s neo-classical manner; if anything, this is the most sensitive version of the work.

The Octet of 1922/23 fits in well with the other two major works from the 1920s on this album. Warner have recently reissued the historical 1932 recording with André Lafosse (trombone), Eugène Foveau (trumpet), Gustave Dherin (bassoon), Marcel Moyse (flute), Marius Piard (bassoon), Pierre Vignal (trumpet), Raphaël Delbos (trombone), Émile Godeau (clarinet). It comes as a download-only release with recordings of Capriccio for piano and orchestra (rec. 1930), a suite from Pulcinella, Jeu de Cartes and the Duo concertant, in all of which the composer himself was involved, as pianist or conductor, with the Walther Straram Orchestra and Ernest Ansermet, an unknown orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and Samuel Dushkin (violin). (Warner 9029672839).

The 1930 Capriccio requires a good deal of tolerance, though less than you might think, but the 1932 recording of the Octet has come up amazingly well – certainly well enough to relish the jaunty performance, which nevertheless left the Gramophone reviewer, CM Crabtree, less than overwhelmed, querying whether Stravinsky’s neo-classical style was anything more than a ‘sterile archaism’ and warning purchasers to ‘keep it to yourself; your friends will certainly think [it’s] a curiosity [from] an incredibly bad ex-Servicemen’s “band”’. It’s a rather drier, more cerebral work than the Divertimento or L’Histoire du Soldat and, even now, I feel some sympathy with that 1934 reviewer, but at least he had the foresight to note the ‘perfect clarity’ of an ‘almost perfect’ recording.

I have to admit that I was taken with that premiere recording; indeed, the whole album is well worth at least streaming – Naxos Music Library offer it here. The members of the London Sinfonietta had had almost 50 years longer to get to know the Octet, and theirs, even more, merits the words ‘clarity’ and ‘almost perfect’. If I still think the music cerebral, that’s also my idiosyncratic reaction to Bach’s cello suites.

Chailly’s 1980 album ends as it began, with a suite that has come to be better known than the original work from which it was taken. There are several fine versions of the complete (1918) Histoire du Soldat, in the original French and in English as The Soldier’s Tale. I especially like the earlier of two Naxos recordings of the English version – DL News 2016/5 and Autumn 2016 – but many will be content with this nine-movement 1920 Suite. Like that Naxos recording of the complete work, Chailly’s recording of the suite has all the jauntiness that you could wish.

If you already have a preferred recording of L’Histoire du Soldat, complete or the suite, the rest of the programme on the Decca Enterprise CD is contained on an alternative coupling, available separately as a download. It’s replaced there with two other recordings made in Kingsway Hall in 1980, Fanfare for a new Theatre and Three Pieces for solo clarinet (Anthony Pay) – but these are both much shorter than the Soldat suite, so you end up paying the same amount (as much as £13.49 from one dealer) for a download with only 55 minutes (Decca 4171142).

These recordings of the Octet, Suites 1 and 2 and L’Histoire du Soldat Suite also feature on CD3 of the complete box set, with Le chant du rossingnol (Concertgebouw); Divertimento appears on CD4, with Ragtime, Dumbarton Oaks, Tango and Danses concertantes, of which more anon when I complete my review of the complete offering. There’s much to be said for obtaining the complete set, but if, like me, you have run out of space for another large box, this single download is well worth considering.

Though made by the now defunct Italian label Dischi Ricordi, recordings, set down in London’s Kingsway Hall, one of Decca’s favourite venues, have come up sounding well. It first appeared in the UK in 1986 on Decca.

Brian Wilson

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