STRAVINSKY: Music for Violin and Piano Vol.1 – Ilya Gingolts/ Peter Lauls – BIS SACD 2245, 60:48, (7/7/17) ****½:
In Stravinsky’s late-period laboratory of chamber music reinvention.
Stravinsky was famously skeptical of the violin, especially in combination with the piano. Well into his career, he had produced no chamber music with this conventional pairing. In his own words:
“For many years I had taken no pleasure in the blend of strings struck in the piano with strings set in vibration with the bow. In order to reconcile myself to this instrumental combination I was compelled to turn to the minimum of instruments, that is to say, only two, in which I saw the possibility of solving the instrumental and acoustic problem.”
This changed in 1930, when he met the violinist Samuel Dushkin. This meeting provided both inspiration and insight in how to write for these two instruments. He made up for lost time with a new productivity in chamber music, a genre one does not usually associate with the Maestro. This release features the violin/piano music that arose from this fruitful encounter circa the early 1930’s.
What we have are mostly arrangements made by Stravinsky himself from the famous ballets Petrushka, Firebird, Le Rossignol, Mavra. These little pieces are full of puckish humor and wildly imaginative musical ideas. They swerve from affecting simple folk melodies (Mavra) to frenzied whirling (the Scherzo of Firebird). Scale, too, varies greatly. There is a grand orchestral effect in Petruschka, while other pieces, like Berceuse, are the most intimate of paired-down dialogs. Ilya Gringolts puts his ravishing 1742 Guarneri fiddle to good use; the upper register possesses an incomparable magic, especially in the pianissimo passages.
The most integrated work here is surely the lovely Pergolesi Suite from Pulcinella. I have always considered this the summit of Stravinsky’s artistry, and here, the purity of Gringolts violin underscores its enduring lyrical potency and sheer charm. Everything about these Baroque-tinged themes conduces towards physical motion. It is an evocation of every kind of swaying, leaping, and capering, and the duo has the dance perfectly choreographed.
The single piece that Stravinsky wrote expressly for the two instruments is the Duo Concertante (1932). According to the composer, the music strives for a “lyricism with rules” in the spirit of “the pastoral poets of antiquity and their scholarly art and technique.” Who can guess what Stravinsky meant by this gloss? There is little of the pastoral spirit in these four movements. Jazzy effects alternate with stiff classicism; subjects appear and disappear at a whim. There is flux, aggravation, and surprise, that is to say, the normal Stravinsky ingredients. I do not think it represents the composer at his peak; Instead, it might be placed as a chamber music equivalent of his contemporary Apollon Musagete. While Gringolts and Laul play with focus and finesse, some eyes might glaze over on the diffuse Eglogue I and II. The dance returns for the Gigue, and the Guarneri dazzles over some tricky syncopations. The Dithyrambe suggests melodramatic movie music, ending abruptly as if the projector died. Surely the performers make the strongest case for this piece, which nevertheless, to my ears, stands out incongruously from the rest of the recital.
Le Rossignol takes us back to the exotic and unexpected with the first half, Airs. Then the clanging and awful fanfare opening of Marche chinoise demonstrates Stravinsky’s famous acerbic wit. It evokes less a march than a choreographed sword battle.
As a final puzzlement, we are served a Stravinsky arrangement of the Marseillaise. The acidulous double and triple stops added by the composer might be construed as cocking a snook at patriotic sentiment. However, the short-winded anthem (one minute) hardly allows sufficient time to discern whether the piece aims at amusement, derision, or a little of both.
Overall, this is a fabulous recital showcasing a stunning array of musical invention by the great shape-shifting composer of the 20th century. The engineers at BIS have deft hands when it comes to arranging microphones, and the presentation of the CD is especially fine with photogravure fern images from Karl Blossfeldt Urformen der Kunst on front and back. For fiddle or Stravinsky fans, this production is not to be missed.