STRAVINSKY: Petrushka: 1911 Original Version; Jeu de Cartes – Mariinsky Orchestra/ Valery Gergiev – Mariinsky SACD MAR0594, 57:51 (10/19/18) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

After the success of the ballet The Firebird in 1910, impraesario Serge Diaghilev insisted that Stravinsky consider a 1911 commission for a second ballet, preferably one that utilized elements in a projected piano concerto. Stravinsky, perhaps in the spirit of Schumann, chose the clown figure of Pulchinella from the Commedia dell’arte in Italy, here a pathetic soul searching for love and acceptance but often inviting contempt and scorn. His pursuit of the lovely Ballerina has the earmarks of classical romance, while the Moor embodies the vulgar aspects of the human psyche. The three main characters first appear in the Shrovetide Fair tableau, the 1830s St. Petersburg carnival in which a Magician introduces his three puppet principals to the crowd. Their Russian dance sets the tone of athletic rivalry and primal energy. In Scene 2, the Magician hurls Petrushka into a cramped cell, where in his rage and oppression, Petrushka’s especial chord (on F-sharp and C) sounds—via a pair of clarinets—in bitonal harmony. Petrushka expresses his love for the Ballerina, only to be rejected. That Beauty may love a Beast asserts itself in the Moor’s cell of Scene 3, where his brass, piano, clarinet, bass clarinet, and English horn attract her to his begrimed soul. When the Ballerina and the Moor engage in an askew Viennese waltz, Petrushka objects via the trombone, only to be rudely ejected after a confrontation from which the Ballerina faints. The final tableau, Scene 4, plays out in kaleidoscopic sequences, filled with nursemaids, a chained, dancing bear, gypsy girls, grooms and coachmen, and celebrants in animal garb. The Moor pursues Petrushka with a scimitar and slays him, causing flute and piccolo to sound Petrushka’s pitiable death cries. When a Policeman summons the Magician, the latter picks up Petrushka’s dead body, shakes it, and proclaims that a mere puppet has expired. But after the crowd leaves, the ghost of Petrushka’s spirit—in trumpets—returns to haunt the Magician, who runs away, terrified.

What makes Petrushka eternally dazzling lies in the sheer energy of its rhythms and the acerbic brilliance of its orchestration. True, one points to the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov’s sense of color, but Stravinsky already moves ahead, embracing both Debussy and Scriabin along his way, even while his harmonic aggressions point to the breakthrough in Le Sacre du Printemps, soon ahead. The juxtapositions of pathos, sentiment, folk energy, wit, and martial exuberance quite carry us away in a swirl of life forces. Gergiev imposes his typical—sometimes mannered—will upon the score, alternately pushing and tugging at the rhythmic pulse while stretching the melodic curves in a manner reminiscent of what Mengelberg would do to Tchaikovsky. The Mariinsky Orchestra (rec. 14 January 2014) serves as a totally pliant instrument for Gergiev, sensitive to every beat and syncopation.  The brass and tympani urge the gypsy girls with a fierce abandon, while the strings add a pearly glamour to the high singing line. The keyboard and battery conspire to inject a mania into the festivities of the Shrovetide Fair, while the last, anguished scenes impart an eerie humanity to the puppet’s death, especially in the solo violin, brass, and low winds.

Igor Stravinsky,
by Pablo Picasso

The ballet Jeu de Cartes emerged from a desire of Lincoln Kerstein (1907-1996) to create a legitimate, American school of ballet that could compete, intellectually and artistically, with the Ballet Russe. Recruiting George Balanchine in 1933, Kerstein felt assured he had a choreographer whose spare, neo-Classical aesthetic would befit the projects Kerstein wished to mount, especially if Igor Stravinsky were to play a crucial role in the ventures. Stravinsky drew his 1936 scenario together on the basis of his love for poker, a card game in which The Joker—a kind of Hermes and trickster—would dominate the action of the three “deals” of the ballet. The Joker will defeat any number of competing cards until he is vanquished by a “Royal Flush” in Hearts. This performance by Gergiev (26-31 December 2009) maintains a light, playful hand, much in keeping with the Sir Colin Davis recording that first alerted me to the seductions of this witty score. In the course of the plastic, protean motifs we hear any number of allusions to other classical masters: Beethoven, Rossini, Johann Strauss, and Ravel, likely as homage and irony, given the innate brightness and allure of a “stacked deck.”  Naturally, the Mariinsky Orchestra provides an alert, crisply resonant performance that makes choice the various instrumental solos and combinations—savor the quotes from The Barber of Seville—that keep this ballet refreshed.

—Gary Lemco