Nicolai Malko conducts STRAVINSKY = Symphony in 3 Movements; Violin Concerto in D Major; Symphony of Psalms; The Firebird Suite (1919) – Ida Haendel, violin/ Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Choir – Yves St-Laurent YSL t-709 (2 CDs) 47:00; 41:00 [www.78experience.com] ****:

From the concert at Radiohuset, Copenhagen (29 January 1959) Russian conductor Nicolai Malko (1883-1961) leads an all-Stravinsky program that, except for the Firebird Suite, constitutes major works in his neo-Classical style.  Although the Symphony in Three Movements (1945-1946) constitutes an amalgam of discarded film-score projects, the piece counts as Stravinsky’s first major “American” score, which he entitled “a war symphony,” responding to political events in Asia and Europe. The piano and harp parts dominate, respectively, in the first two movements, and they combine for the percussive, fugal elements of the Con moto last movement, which well indicates the militarism in Nazi Germany. The Andante – Interlude originally meant to accompany the 1944 movie The Song of Bernadette, based on the Franz Werfel novel whose film adaptation garnered an Academy Award both for Jennifer Jones and for the music by Alfred Newman.

Igor Stravinsky,
by Pablo Picasso

That George Balanchine choreographed Symphony in Three Movements seems entirely apt, given the startling athleticism of the music, its propulsive self-confidence. The Danish ensemble responds with kinetic transparency in all parts, especially the keyboard’s angular momentum as supported by winds, brass, and raucous brass. Stravinsky had been re-scoring aspects of Le Sacre du Printemps in 1943, and more than one rhythmic or tone cluster makes its appearance in the course of the opening Overture – allegro, which moves in sonata-allegro form. No less “intrusive,” harmonic and color elements from Petrushka insinuate themselves into the mix, based on an octatonic scale. Happily, the first movement, “inspired” by the Japanese “scorched earth” policy in China, transcends both the earlier musical influences and the politics of the period. The slow movement had been intended as an “Apparition of the Virgin” for the Hollywood movie. The music achieves an eerie fusion of mystical, chromatic harmonies and a vague, martial obsessiveness. The last movement conflates jerky, short impulses reminiscent of Petrushka with the dark chromatics of movement two, now applied in a “learned” jazz fashion replete with polyphonic layering and punishing riffs in the string work.

The 1931 Violin Concerto in D has as its soloist the legendary Ida Haendel (b. 1923 or 1928) in the part originally designed for Samuel Dushkin. Caprice and extravagant gestures in “baroque” style mark the Concerto’s progress, and Haendel invests a sense of playful whimsy as she works her way through the opening Toccata. Each movement opens with a strong, dissonant chord, and like the ballet Petrushka, proceeds with a hearty sense of affect or theatrical character. Aria I proceeds in the manner of a two-part invention, with Haendel’s setting the tone in bright, widely spaced colors. The middle section assumes darker shades and some sense of inward melancholy, but the clouds soon disperse. Aria II offers one of the real “serenades” or sarabandes in Stravinsky, who uses strings rather than winds to support his lyrical soloist. The final movement, Capriccio, employs syncopation and manic, repetitive phrases to reintroduce the irony and jazzy freedom of the opening Toccata. Haendel and Malko, having initiated the blistering tempo, do not relent in their lusty sense of the composer’s invention buttressed by a performance of dazzling virtuosity from all participants.

The Symphony of Psalms (1930; rev. 1948) was composed on a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra for its 50th anniversary.  Stravinsky meant to orchestrate the actual singing of the psalms, set in Latin rather than in Slavonic, which had been his first intention. The pungent rhythms Stravinsky utilizes find harmonic complements in sets of thirds: E minor to G Major (Psalm 38); C minor to E-flat Major (Psalm 39); C minor to C Major (Psalm 150).  Often, the application of short woodwind riffs altered by a semitone reminds us of a medieval hocket form. The second movement provides a complex of fugues, sometimes in the Phrygian mode, with a corresponding sense of both awe and dread. The second movement lasts twice as long as had movement one, a plea for mercy; and the third lasts thrice the length of the first and incorporates the full text of the Psalm. The Laudate Dominum bears a militant stamp, Christ the Judge with orb and scepter, about the separate the wheat from the chaff. The instrumental ensemble, lacking violins and violas and focused on percussion, brass, harp, and winds, conveys a chaste but harsh affect, which Malko exalts with the brilliant assistance of his Danish National Choir.  Along with performances by Igor Markevitch and Jascha Horenstein, this recording marks a new high in my estimate of recordings of a composition some call “the best classical piece of the twentieth century.”

Malko concludes with the 1919 suite from the 1911 The Firebird, Stravinsky’s musical homage to Russian legend and to his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov and his octatonic, half-step scales.  From the low rumblings of the strings and the intonations of the brass, the Danish ensemble invokes the magic of the score, a tale of Prince Ivan’s pursuit of a fabulous bird which inhabits a tree of golden apples.  The Danse de l’Oiseau de feu has all the alluring orchestral elements we desire, here in glorious Technicolor. Oboe and viola, horn and strings invoke the sultry Rondes des Princesses with their implied promise of love. The succeeding Danse infernale de roi Kachchei provides the requisite moment of syncopated terror, laced with sulphur, marked by brilliant trombone slides and screeching szofzati in the strings. The enchanting Berceuse proffers the bassoon’s version of a lullaby over muted strings and harp. The lulling 3/2 meter of the Final (the wedding of Ivan and the Princess) evolves from the famed French horn motif from among trembling strings evolves – via an equally famous harp glissando—into a broad canvas whose meter becomes asymmetrical in 7/4 and assumes a glowing apotheosis worthy of Stravinsky’s other idol, Tchaikovsky.

Volume 19 of the Nicolai Malko edition of Yves St-Laurent comes highly recommended.

—Gary Lemco

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