STRAVINSKY: Pulcinella Suite; Appolon Musagete; Concerto in D for Strings – Tapiola Sinfonietta/ Masaaki Suzuki – BIS multichannel SACD 2211, 64:55 [Distr. by Naxos] (6/3/16) ****½:
A sensational performance in high-definition sound of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite.
Masaaki Suzuki must be pleased to see the culmination of his long-term project of recording all of Bach’s choral music, which has been handsomely released on a 55-SACD set by BIS. But for this indefatigable artist there is no rest. We find him on the back cover dressed in white, a radiant sage with hands suggesting restless intelligence. For this recording, he has crossed oceans, continents and centuries to give us an all-Stravinsky concert with the superb Finnish Tapiola Sinfonietta.
The Pulcinella Suite is the main attraction here, and it is a piece of wondrous invention. It is a tired cliche to point out that it belongs to the composers “classical” rediscovery of the past; It is utterly unlike the other works from that period. In fact, it sounds more eternally fresh than The Rite Of Spring or Firebird. Perhaps it constitutes a masterpiece in a genre best nominated “the comic sublime.” Each movement limns a radically individual musical character associated with Commedia dell’ arte. Even without the ballet, there is a strong visual effect which compliments the theatrical dance.
It is the great achievement of the eminent BIS engineers to enhance the individuality of the instruments with the depth and precision of the sound image. Woodwinds have never sounded better than on the Serenata or the spectacular Finale. On the oafish Vivo, the lower strings and trombone carry the day to unrivaled farcical effect. At such times, one believes that a work of such unmediated communicative power could revive classical music in one fell swoop. I see the members of the Tapiola Sinfonietta marching down the halls of a middle-school, the bassoon, horn, and trombone each a different super-hero.
One imagines that sensei Suzuki has gotten as much joy out of the performance as his grateful audience. Especially after the long engagement with the profundity and transcendental implications of Bach, his baton is no longer that of the instructor but rather the wizard, conjuring up whimsical puppetry. But next up is Apollon Musagete, which is a very different creation indeed.
It is with regret that one sees the wind-players leave the stage to the string players. (Nor will they return for the Concerto in D for Strings). Yet we trust the engineers to bring us a vivid sonics soundscape to more than capable string-players. When the figure of Apollon makes his dramatic entry after his stiffly formal Naissance, we are treated to a rare achievement in violin verisimilitude. It is just possible to make out a slight Doppler-effect from the swaying of the first violin. This moment of rapture is followed by diffuse musing of the three Muses, in which there is appropriate to the title Pas d’action. It appears Apollon has the tedious job of bringing order to bear on three Muses, “dance, speech and song.” Moments ago we were happy enough to give dance her Dionysian freedom, but here restraint prevails. Variations ensue and the piece urges itself forward without spectacle or even unusual event. Stravinsky once said “if a truly tragic note is sounded anywhere in my music, that note is in Apollo.” We would guess that the greatest proponent of Bach, Masaaki might have been able to find and communicate that note, but this listener did not hear it. This piece has never been one of Stravinsky’s more popular works, and the mythological burden it has to carry may be too much freight to carry, given sluggish combination of lushness and formality of design.
The Concerto arrives on the same classicist train as Apollon, but here there is even more of a time-bound feeling. Following the famous dialogue between f and f sharp, which generates most of the tension in the bracing Vivace, the music seems to engage the antinomies of Modernism and mid-century film music. The Arioso stalls in a doldrums, and even the modest oar-strokes of the Andantino don’t seem to take us anywhere. One is really left puzzling over this most enigmatic of composers by the end. The Rondo/ Allegro no sooner seems to have found a compromise between old and new, then it quietly and unexpectedly gives up the ghost.
Surely this is a rare demonstration SACD for the most demanding of audiophiles. For classical enthusiasts, it is quite a good thing to have Masaaki Suzuki busily engaging top ensembles in works far afield from his Kingdom of Bach. For Stravinsky fans, there could be no better chance to revisit the Neo-Classical period of this remarkable but perplexing Russian composer.
TrackList: Pulcinella Suite; Apollon Musagete; Concerto In D for String Orchestra