STRAVINSKY: Pulcinella Suite; Apollon musagète; Concerto in D for String Orchestra ‒ Orch. de Chambre de Lausanne/ Joshua Wellerstein ‒ Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, multichannel SACD MDG 940 1955-6 (2+2+2); 65:36 (6/3/2016) ***:
Stress-free Stravinsky. A musical sedative, anyone?
Sometime during the First World War, while Stravinsky was riding out the storm in Switzerland, he decided that the huge orchestras that European composers, including himself, had written for before the war were passé. In the post-Apocalyptic world of the late teens and twenties, there just wouldn’t be resources available to fire up again the grand late-Romantic symphony orchestra. So Stravinsky commenced to write a string of works for more modest performing forces, starting with L’histoire du soldat and continuing with, among others, the first two pieces on the current disc, aptly played by a chamber orchestra.
Like Handel, Stravinsky was a notorious borrower of other composers’ good musical ideas, and he was forthright about the practice. “Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal,” he was supposed to have said. So we have Pulcinella (1922), a ballet in the style of the commedia dell’arte and based on music attributed (mostly incorrectly) to Baroque composer Giovanni Pergolesi. To be fair, Stravinsky at first resisted the idea behind the ballet but was swayed when he studied the music that Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes, sent to him. The piece is interesting in that it breaks the string body out into a concertino and a ripieno group in the manner of the Baroque concerto grosso. Unusually, it also employs three singers—soprano, tenor, and bass. For me, the complete ballet is livelier and more colorful than the twenty-some-minute suite that Stravinsky drew from it. There are good recordings of the complete score from Abbado, Craft, and Salonen.
The current performance of the suite is quite decent but not special enough to dislodge any of the numerous fine alternatives. Then again, maybe I’m cool towards it because I just can’t warm to its companion piece, Apollon musagète (1927). Written to a commission by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, this is a vest-pocket ballet employing just six dancers and scored for strings alone. The title can be rendered in English as “Apollo, leader of the muses,” the muses in question being Calliope (muse of song and poetry), Polyhymnia (muse of sacred song and pantomime), and Terpsichore (muse of dance and choral song). The only movement in which Apollo and his muse friends get to kick up their heels is the three-minute-long Coda. While Stravinsky once said “Rhythm is all,” in this music he almost entirely abandoned rhythmic variety, avoiding as well, according to note writer Werner Keil, “dissonant and overly contrastive effects, wanting the music to sound as ‘Apollonian’ as possible—peaceful, clear, beautiful and logical.” Me, I’ll take Dionysian Stravinsky any day. I’m not the only one, apparently: both Ravel and Prokofiev were nonplussed when they heard the music performed in Paris, Prokofiev wondering how the once-firebrand Stravinsky had managed to write such tame, boring stuff.
In fact, my favorite piece on the program is the twelve-minute-plus Concerto in D for Strings (1946), commissioned by that great patron of modern composers, Swiss conductor Paul Sacher. Again, the music glances back at the Baroque, but it’s a tour de force of string writing, demanding virtuoso execution and, thankfully, not avoiding either rhythmic thrust or dissonance. Humorously, the Arioso middle movement is interrupted twice by a misplaced plagal (amen) cadence. This is witty, bracing music that’s characteristic of the best from the composer’s neoclassical period.
All the performances here are good; however, comparing Apollon and the Concerto with my benchmark recording by Charles Dutoit and the Sinfonietta de Montréal (Decca), I find somewhat more tension and vibrancy in Dutoit’s renditions. And while MDG’s recording is typically fulsome and spacious, surround sound hardly seems necessary in this intimate music. [But it improves even solo instruments…Ed.] So if you like the program, I think you won’t be disappointed in Joshua Wellerstein’s readings. But if you already have good versions of the music on your shelves, there’s certainly no reason to add this one to the mix.