STRAVINSKY: Jeu de cartes; Danses concertantes; Scenes de Ballet; Variations; Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra – Mark Wait, p./ Philharmonia/ Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble/ Orchestra of St. Luke’s/ London Philharmonic/ Robert Craft – Naxos

by | Feb 11, 2008 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

STRAVINSKY: Jeu de cartes; Danses concertantes; Scenes de Ballet; Variations; Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra – Mark Wait, piano/ Philharmonia Orchestra/ Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble/ Orchestra of St. Luke’s/ London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Robert Craft, conductor – Naxos 8.557506, 79:07 *****:

The is the latest in the series of Robert Craft-conducted releases that Naxos was wise enough to acquire from previous issues of other companies, in this case MusicMasters and Koch Classics. Craft, long time supporter and confidant of Igor Stravinsky, and also biographer and even amanuensis in some instances, embarked on a series of recordings in the early 1990s that is still going, and in the end may well represent the most important collection of Stravinsky recordings since the composer’s own; certainly there is no more complete one.

This CD brings together what it calls “later ballets”, though one must probably exclude the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra as its origins are from 1929, and used in the Balanchine ballet Jewels (the “rubies” section). The others start from wartime, Stravinsky himself having to tolerate no little criticism for his “happy spirits” in the first American-formed composition, Danses concertantes. This piece took form at his then to be longtime residence in California, and despite the ravages of the occupation of France and the British bombings, a man who had spent six months in a sanatorium, and suffered through three deaths (wife, eldest daughter, and mother) can certainly be excused for wanting a little relief to the stress. So in 1941-42 he did exactly that, and created one of his most sparkling works, played to aesthetic perfection by the Twentieth Century Classic Ensemble, a group of Craft’s own formation.

Jeu de cartes, a luscious tonal sensation, and subtitled a “Ballet in Three Deals for Orchestra”, was a 1935 commission by Balanchine focusing on the unlikely dealings of a four-card suit and their trouble with the evil spirit, the Joker. There is no slow music here, and the action is fast and furious, with minimal dissonance and maximum entertainment, remaining one of his most approachable scores. Scenes de Ballet, also a very popular score, was designated for Broadway, the 1944 spectacle The Seven Lively Arts. It was completed on the day of the liberation of Paris from the Germans, but even that fact wasn’t enough to persuade the pit orchestra to have a better go at the tricky five-bar beats, and the work was severely cut, finally taken up by Frederick Ashton and the Royal Ballet, in whose repertory it remains to this day.

The Variations is the one piece on the disc that is quite dissimilar in tone. Stravinsky never wrote a more dense or complex piece of music, though when you hear it, it is remarkably clear. It is a twelve-tone series with three twelve-part variations internal to it. The instrumentation changes radically for each variation, and despite the complexity one comes away more with an impression of color and texture than serial considerations. Sometimes called the “Huxley Variations” (it was dedicated posthumously to the composer’s great friend Aldous Huxley), the piece is an important one in Stravinsky’s subsequent foray into serialism, a form he gave his own inimitable stamp.

The sound is very good on this release, perhaps a bit better on the MusicMasters transfers, but never less that excellent. Just glancing at the orchestras on this disc should be enough to convince you that the performances are played with superior spirit and accuracy. Robert Craft was wise in giving these works his second wind, and this release is mandatory for any Stravinsky collection worth its salt.

— Steven Ritter

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