Yevgeny Mravinsky, cond. = BARTOK: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; HONEGGER: Symphony No. 3 “Liturgique”; STRAVINSKY: Agon – Leningrad Philharmonic Orch./ Yevgeny Mravinsky – Praga Digitals stereo SACD PRD/DSD 350 087, 78:29 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Praga has revived three live performances from the Leningrad Philharmonic archives with the imperious conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky (1903-1988) in music exemplifying “Twentieth Century Philosophies,” according to the liner notes. The inscriptions, 1965-1968, enjoy the enhanced sonic imaging provided for hybrid SACD and CD remastering by Engineer Karel Soukenik of Demovina Studio, Prague.

The program opens with Mravinsky’s severe treatment of Bartok’s 1936 Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (24 May 1967) from Dvorak Hall in Prague.  Commissioned by Paul Sacher for his Basle Chamber Orchestra, the piece turned Bartok back to abstract, formal orchestral music after his having been engaged in the Fifth String Quartet. The celesta does not figure in any way significantly larger than the other percussion instruments – piano, xylophone, tympani and harp – utilized in the course of the composition. The opening fugue exploits the circle of fifths, starting on A in the violas and along the strings until a fearful culmination in E-flat. The canons under Mravinsky assume a vise-like grip, the canons and inversions wrenching in their progress from A to E in various registers.  The Allegro second movement, a kind of rondo, projects a grim gaiety under Mravinsky, exploiting ideas from the opening movement but focused on tonal centers in C and F-sharp. The “dance,” as such, becomes rhythmically animate but rarely laughs.

The solo xylophone dominates the sound of the “night music” Adagio, while tympani, con sordino strings, and pools of sound from the celesta illuminate its rather startling affect. The tympani has accompaniments from vibrations in the harp, the movement evolving in hints and whispers, and dark undercurrents. When the music reaches the  martellato section, we sense Bluebeard’s Castle imminent. The last movement, Allego molto, generally proceeds as a dazzling dance concoction, fugal and diatonically energized. The piano becomes more active, sometimes in four hands. The opening material from movement one returns, a cyclic option that Bartok favors for architecture that leans on Beethoven and Franck, at once. The music makes an uneasy peace with A Major, but the superheated energies and plastic textures leave us – thanks to Mravinsky’s volatile forces – in uncertainty as to whether our closure has any real merit.

Marking the end of hostilities in Paris and the world of WW II, Arthur Honeggar conceived his Liturgical Symphony (1946) for three protagonists: misery, happiness, and man.  Honegger put aspects of the Roman Catholic Liturgy into his score, beginning with a violent Dies Irae that incurs militant barbarism, destruction, and social chaos.  Mravinsky (28 February 1965, from Moscow) wastes no time instilling a controlled frenzy upon us, with a brilliant, gaudy sound from his brass section. The dedicatee of this music, Charles Munch, claimed that the music posed man’s limited vision and sense of rebellion against a Divine Will. The sensibility of Psalm 130, De profundis, attempts to find in the second movement serenity of spirit in the midst of apparent rubble, physical and spiritual.  The woodwind textures, combined with aerial string and flute harmony, ease the recollections of prior torment. The middle section, a combination of brass, keyboard, and low strings and wrenching winds, revives the kinds of questions Man, aka Job, might pose in the midst of affliction.  With his Dona nobis pacem (Andante) Honegger makes his case for spiritual restitution and possible acceptance. Mravinsky leads an ineluctable progression from militant intentions to an apotheosis of Mankind’s unquenchable life force. Those same energies in Shostakovich that propel Mravinsky’s sympathies well serve him in this Gallic expression of the eternal struggle between the forces of dissolution and spiritual health.

Igor Stravinsky worked on the ballet Agon – with George Balanchine and his New York City Ballet – intermittently from 1953-1957. Stravinsky himself underwent a musical transition from diatonic harmony to a syntax derived from Schoenberg and the 12-tone system. Conceived for twelve dancers, eight female and four male, the music opens relatively conservatively, in Baroque dance forms Spanish and French, only to become increasingly abstract and chromatically unstable, and finally embracing strict serial techniques. Typical of any Mravinsky reading, the musical sound picture evolves (rec. 30 October 1968, from Moscow) with piercing exactitude, its patina hard and bracing. While not particularly “pretty” music, the cumulative effect has us in awe the experiment and the experimenters, here in colossal, biting sympathy. [There is little enhancement in the SACD version vs. the CD layer in these older recordings – just a slight increase in clarity and high-frequency information if you have a good system…Ed.]

—Gary Lemco