STRAVINSKY: Chant funebre; Le Sacre du Printemps – Sophie Koch, mezzo-soprano/ Lucerne Festival Orchestra/ Riccardo Chailly – Decca

This compilation of Stravinsky’s early works restores a long-lost tribute to the composer’s revered teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov.

STRAVINSKY: Chant funebre, Op. 5; Feu d’artifice, Op. 4; Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3; Le Faune et la Bergere, Op. 2; Le Sacre du Printemps – Sophie Koch, mezzo-soprano/ Lucerne Festival Orchestra/ Riccardo Chailly – Decca 483 2562, 70:19 (1/12/18) [Distr. by Universal] *****: 

The 2015 discovery of Stravinsky’s Funeral Song, Op. 5 in St. Petersburg, a result of the refurbishing of the old Conservatory building in Teatralnaya Ploshchad, marks much of the import of this release, recorded 16-19 August 2017. Stravinsky composed the Funeral  Song (1908) as a memorial to his teacher Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov; but after its initial premiere in January 1909, the score disappeared, despite the composer’s having called it “the best of my works before The Firebird.” Indeed, the opening measures of the score possess chromatic figures and tremolo effects that quite adumbrate aspects of the later ballet, especially the theme that depicts the “Sudden Appearance of Prince Ivan.” The succession of individual instrumental colors forms a funereal wreath to be laid at the foot of Rimsky-Korsakov’s bier, and the music will rise up in bucolic but solemn procession that more than echoes aspects of Wagner’s Parsifal.  When Boosey and Hawkes brought out the restored composition, it found its way to modern performance by way of Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, 2 December 2016.  Here, with Chailly, this long-buried work receives its debut recording.

Feu d’artifice, Op. 4 (1908) lasts but four minutes, but it well captures in the form of a scherzo the bustle we associate with both Rimsky-Korsakov and Liadov, shimmering colors in miniature. At moments, the music occupies two keys at once, but the effect resolves into a traditional syntax that dissolves brilliantly.

Igor Stravinsky, sketch by Pablo Picasso

Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3 (1908) derives from his affection for Maurice Maeterlinck’s  1901 essay “The Life of Bees,” which had the elements for a possible ballet. The twelve-minute piece indulges us in virtuosic performance of exotic and whole-tone scales, diminished sevenths, and augmented triads in a whirlwind, perpetual-motion, sound display. Already, we feel the composer intentionally expands his harmonic and color vocabulary to a point that challenges tradition. Chailly and his Lucerne forces maintain a delicate, light hand throughout.

Stravinsky composed three songs during his 1906 honeymoon, utilizing settings of Alexander Pushkin, poetry both pastoral and erotic, Stravinsky’s calling the triptych Le Faune et la Bergere, Op. 2, “The Faun and the Shepherdess.”  Those who know the poetry of Pierre Louys and the music of Claude Debussy will readily make comparisons. The setting, for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, opens Andantino, with an evocation of the young shepherdess in tones that approach Wagner in his Wesendonck mode. The Faun appears Moderato/Allegro moderato in tones that somewhat echo Dukas. The last section, “The Torrent,” the action mirrors the myth of Daphne and Apollo, as an ardent satyr pursues the lovely Lila and almost ravishes her, but the river claims her naked body.

At last, we reach that most iconoclastic of ballet scores, Le Sacre du printemps (1913) and its tableaux of pagan Russia. Having sat through live performances led by Leonard Bernstein and Hiroyuki Iwaki—as well countless recording by such masters as Markevitch, Muti, Ansermet, Monteux, Fricsay, and Stokowski—I have come to embrace the music’s plastic colors and startling metric disjunctions as old friends.  The often beguiling lyricism captures my fancy as much as its percussive, jolting accents and thrusting, primal energies.  Under the audio supervision of John Fraser, Engineer Philip Siney and Editor Ian Watson have produced an album whose historic import seems secure.

—Gary Lemco

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