Music & Arts CD1211, 2 CDs 68:00; 62:00 [Distrib. by Albany] **** :
About Stravinsky the conductor there are many tales, each of them confirming the fact that conducting remained a craft the great composer had to work hard–especially after age 50–to master. While recordings could tolerate the Master’s constantly changing or “evolving” conceptions of tempo and metric design, the world of stage ballet could not: dancers require absolute steadiness and consistency of execution, and George Balanchine constantly admonished his New York dancers to watch him, not Stravinsky, as the ultimate arbiter of “right tempo.”
By the time of these inscriptions, 1951-1955, Stravinsky seemed intent on “fixing” the tempos of his scores, despite the fact that Ansermet and Monteux often quipped that he hadn’t the technique. Utilizing the Baden-Baden ensemble, superbly prepared by Hans Rosbaud, Stravinsky could communicate–for better or worse–with musicians who would realize his “intentions” in spite of himself. Degrees of articulation, too, could be wrought from Robsaud’s players, who had been trained by Rosbaud to elicit the ‘sec’ pattern of staccato that remains distinct from normal, bowed staccato. The works here presented, insofar as they imbibe a neo-Classical sensibility, rely on the “white” sound that Stravinsky found after his indulgence into the post-Romantic ethos of the first three ballets.
We open with the 1931 Violin Concerto, which takes its cue from the composer’s own Capriccio. The opening 11th chord that the soloist stretches is the “passport” to the whole, as it begins each movement, albeit in a different guise. Stravinsky had recorded the Concerto in 1935 with its inspiritor, Samuel Dushkin. This performance (22 April 1955) projects a nervous, edgy fabric, and one can ‘see’ the application of the two internal Aria movements to balletic uses. Cold clarity is the name of Stravinsky’s (baroque-sounding) game; he eschews unbroken legato and the velvet glove. The Capriccio movement best captures the Stravinsky aesthetic: clean, brisk, driven lines, a toccata for violin under- girded by all sorts of metrical agogics and rasping timbres.
Le Baiser de la Fee (1928; rev. 1950) is heard in the form of the Divertimento on its themes the composer created in 1934. This performance (22 April 1955) in good sound reveals how much of Tchaikovsky’s salon spirit Stravinsky could transpose to his own use, in the very fact of writing original music that sounds like that of the older master. The Humoreske, Op. 10, No. 3 from Tchaikovsky makes its pompous presence felt, although its new bass harmonies hearken to Le Sacre du Printemps. Stravinsky makes his own ad hoc cuts to the score to suit his taste at this, often diaphanous, performance whose last scene Variation moves with the frothy excitement we might hear in Offenbach. The Four Etudes (1928) are orchestrations of Three Pieces for String Quartet and the Etude for Pianola, which date, respectively, 1914 and 1917. This performance (22 April 1955) wants their mechanical, ostinato, and quasi-religious sensibilities for the first three; the Madrid section owes debts to late Debussy as it does to the Iberian experience. The so-called “Basle” Concerto in D for Strings (1946) comes from a Paul Sacher commission. This performance (22 April 1955) provides a luscious, even scathing realization of the deft string writing Stravinsky fashioned: clean lines, incisive attacks, a transparent, homogeneous sound often in neo-baroque style. After World War II, sobriety of spirit seems perfectly in order, and for the better part of thirteen minutes, we have it.
The Petrushka Suite performance (14 October 1951) opens with the second tableau at No. 58, just before the flute solo; then it conjures up a sinfonia concertante for piano (Maria Bergmann) and reduced orchestra in the manner of his own Capriccio.The woodwinds still purr and mock In a spirit not far from Le Sacre, but with a different, wittier pungency, as the grotesque doll endures as an embodiment of revolt, Ellison’s Jack-the-Bear. Vivid work in the trumpet, then on to the swirling Shrovetide Fair with its throbbing, vehement pulsations of life and death. Dry staccati march out the hymn that defines the so-called Wet-nurses’ dance that lovers of this score whistle on the boulevards. The drunken bear and peasant cavort briefly, the undulant strings, muted trumpets, and balalaika effects guiding us like Smetana’s Moldau to the Gypsies and a Rake Vendor, the virile Coachmen, and finally, to the Masqueraders. A sweeping, jagged performance in white-hot, etched pieces, Michelangelo’s terribilita in music.
Agon (1954; rev. 1956) is a ballet for 12 dancers commissioned by Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. Both neo-classical and quasi-serialist in technique, the music exploits geometrical energies, “fearful symmetry,” rather than melodic flux. What might have originally been courtly dances–like the Galliarde–become forceful abstractions, here (19 October 1957) stringently realized by the composer and his Baden-Baden ensemble, who also recorded the work with their prime mover, Rosbaud. Unlike Apollo and Orpheus, this music generates no warmth, only our admiration for design. Finally, Pulcinella (1920; rev. 1922 and 1947), a balletic farce based on Pergolesi melodies and a story line from the comedia del’arte. Arranged in eleven (here, 29 April 1954 in Lugano, nine) scenes that often mimic concerti grossi, the voice parts are now transposed to instruments of a small orchestra. Listen to the exact strumming in the bass strings in the Larghetto Serenata. Some virtuoso violin playing in the Scherzino which turns into a variant, texturally, of Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg. Try keeping apace of the flute and strings in the mad Tarantella!
In brief, an excellent set of more than historical interest, a perfect complement to those inscriptions from similar German venues, 1951-1954, offered by Music&Arts CD-1184.