Efrem Kurtz conducts Stravinsky, Satie – Ballet Music – Forgotten Records

by | May 14, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

STRAVINSKY: Petrouchka Ballet (1947 vers.); SATIE: Parade, Ballet realiste; AURIC: Les Matelots – Philharmonia Orchestra (Stravinsky)/ Houston Symphony Orchestra/ Efrem Kurtz – Forgotten Records FR 2135 (54:52) [www.forgottenrecords.com] ****:

Conductor Efrem Kurtz (1900-1995) enjoyed the benefits of having attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied composition with Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Tcherepnin, then moving to Leipzig for conducting studies with Artur Nikisch. When Nikisch became ill during a tour with dancer Isadora Duncan, Kurtz made a successful substitute, leading to engagements with the Berlin Philharmonic and Stuttgart Philharmonic. Kurtz assumed the conducting post with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1932, extensively touring while developing his formidable knowledge of the ballet repertory, including the premiere of Manuel Rosenthal’s arrangement of Gaite Parisienne. In 1942, to escape Nazi persecution, Kurtz emigrated to the United States, becoming a citizen in 1944, after having accepted the post in Kansas City in 1943 until 1948. In 1948, Kurtz became music director at the Houston Symphony, which he led until 1954. Kurtz gained a reputation for leading film scores, such as Jacques Ibert’s music for the Orson Welles production of Macbeth. His work in Russian symphonic repertory was captured by EMI, RCA, and Everest. The Forgotten Records disc restores sessions from 1957 (Stravinsky) and 1949 for Satie and Auric. 

Kurtz opens with an aroused performance (9, 11 April 1957 from His Master’s Voice, Britain) of Igor Stravinsky’s revised version of his 1911 ballet Petrushka, the orchestration altered to accommodate the concert stage rather than the ballet theater. The keyboard part has been expanded, the counterpoints increased, and tempo markings have become decidedly less dance-like. The Philharmonia Orchestra, created by Walter Legge in 1946 especially for the recording of virtuoso works for the EMI label, had already boasted major conductors at the helm, including Karajan. Dobrowen, Malko, and Susskind.

Kurtz has impeccable intonation in his strings and woodwinds, and the brass and battery contribute to the startling, angular sonic experience of the score, the Russian Dance and Shrovetide Fair exuberant in scintillating, kaleidoscopic pageant. The scenes in Petrushka’s Room and the Moor’s Room pulsate with exotic languor, the keyboard suggestive of the puppet’s tragic wisdom, the brass and percussion indicative of the Moor’s malice. The awkward juxtaposition of bassoon, flute, and trumpet for the dance between the Moor and the ballerina renders a classic, drunken caricature of balletic grace. The swirling, hallucinatory intensity – the rhythmic incursions easily a premonition of the more revolutionary Le Sacre du Printemps – increases until the demise of the poor, disillusioned clown, Petrushka, whose bitonal existence in C Major and F# Major attests to the fatal duality in all human experience.

Erik Satie (1866-1925), epitome of musical Dadaism, accepted a 1917 commission from Jean Cocteau for a ballet score, a project that would involve none other than Pablo Picasso for the costume and scenic design. Cocteau’s “plot” involves three groups of circus artists who stage a publicity parade to attract potential audience members for a performance indoors. The chief choreographer for Parade was Leonide Massine of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, replacing Vaslav Nijinsky on stage and in Diaghilev’s romantic life. The “everyday” scenario for the ballet called upon Picasso’s vivid imagination to combine human and trite, material elements, like bottles, boxes, and cardboard, fused into Cubist caricatures of circus acrobats and entertainers. The use of ragtime in No. 4 contributed to Cocteau’s desire for a succès de scandale for the occasion. Here, performed in Houston (14 December 1949), the short set of scenes, lasting only seconds short of 11 minutes, has an aerial, surreal effect, just as the creators intended, the music’s erupting into “guerrilla theater” when, during the Ragtime, the performers insist on pulling the audience into the theatrics. 

Georges Auric (1899-1983) enjoyed membership in a select group of musicians, Les Six, composing his uncomplicated ballet Les Matelots (The Sailors) in 1924 as the second of his projects for Diaghilev, with choreography by Massine. Kurtz presents (14 December 1949) two pieces from suite, Solitude and Variations de trois matelots. Kurtz keeps the textures diaphanously clear. The flirtatious plot involves three sailors who, before embarking on a sea voyage, visit a pair of young ladies, and one sailor becomes enamored of one of the girls. He proposes marriage, bidding a sad farewell, eliciting a promise of fidelity until his return. When the sailors return, they test the girl’s virtue by donning disguises and wooing her as suitors. When the girl remains true, the lover reveals his identity and embraces his intended. 

Auric utilizes a chromatic, polytonal melodic line from woodwinds over string pizzicato to invoke the girl’s solitude, with suggestive hues and orchestral colors in bass and percussion to anticipate the final reconciliation of the lovers. The Variations demonstrate the composer’s own bravado and invention, often comic and slapstick in the broad, string and woodwind gestures as the sailors flaunt the masculinity in fanfares and a virtuoso line from the bassoon. The music retains a Parisian flair, the kind of boulevardier nonchalance we know from Poulenc or LeRoux. Kurtz males each of his three ballet scores eminently appealing.

—Gary Lemco    

Album Cover for stravinsky-satie-auric-efrem-kurtz-front


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