Shades of Stravinsky resurface in summer releases

Composer-conductor Igor Stravinsky was a futurist when it came to audio recordings and some of his works make a welcome return with reissues this summer.
Composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) conducts the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, 1965. Photo picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images.
Composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) conducts the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, 1965. Photo picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images.

Anyone who has wondered how Beethoven would have sounded conducting his own music could find a mighty clue in the work of Igor Stravinsky.

The composer might have spent much of the 20th century absorbed in neoclassicism – a project that some sneer at as being backward-looking – but when it came to the galloping advances in audio recording, he was very much a futurist.

As a result we now have a wonderful archive of his recordings, making him one of the most-recorded composer-conductors of his generation.

Several had fallen out of print, so it’s a delight to see them reissued this summer. Of particular interest is Igor Stravinsky in USSR (Praga Digitals, out now), which was recorded when the prodigal composer returned to his homeland between 1962 and 1965 (he fled Russia in 1914 ahead of the Bolshevik revolution).

Also noteworthy is Igor Stravinsky in 4 Deals (Praga Digitals, out on August 12), which features a recording of the composer as conductor from 1957.

By the late 1950s, Stravinsky was approaching his 80th birthday and already a veteran of the recording studio. During the 1950s (and on into the 1960s) Columbia Records invited him to conduct almost his entire back catalogue using the finest technology of the day (the results are available on Igor Stravinsky – The Complete Columbia Album Collection, Sony Classical).

But he started recording his compositions as a conductor as early as 1928. And if you rewind further still, he had already started to carve out his legacy in the early 1920s with a series of experimentations for the player piano, the mechanical instrument that “magically” plays pieces of music when rolls of paper punched with holes are fed into it.

Stravinsky created several of these piano rolls and, while they clearly don’t offer surround-sound perfection, they do offer fascinating interpretations of his early works, including The Rite of Spring (1913), particularly when it comes to tempos.

To suggest that any of these recordings offer the definitive interpretations of the composer’s music is not as simple as it may seem, however – and Stravinsky himself added to the confusion.

In his 1936 book, An Autobiography, he wrote that his recordings would “create a lasting document which should be of service to those executants who would rather know or follow my intentions than stray into irresponsible interpretations of my musical text”.

And yet, history tells another story. The maestro recorded the same works several times, each presenting a different variation in tempo and mood. Confusing.

So what do we learn from Stravinsky’s recordings? Perhaps that he wasn’t the best conductor. The majority of the recordings on Igor Stravinsky in USSR feature the USSR Symphony Orchestra, which had yet to rise to the sublime heights reached under Evgeny Svetlanov. Their performances are disorganised and raw.

Compounding matters, Stravinsky’s music was banned under the Soviets and so, knowing no different, the orchestra approaches it with the same Slavic gusto as a Shostakovich or Tchaikovsky symphony.

But whereas Stravinsky’s studio recordings of the same period have the clinical feel of a composer earnestly recording his music for posterity, the USSR Symphony Orchestra’s live rendition of the composer’s ballet Orpheus (1947), for example, is rich and electric.

Nevertheless, compare this with the interpretation of the ballet Apollon Musagète (1928) performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Yevgeny Mravinsky, on the same disc and you immediately see the flaws in Stravinsky’s conducting style.

Mravinsky carries the composer’s work to another dimension, albeit one inhabited by Tchaikovsky’s sensual lyrical beauty. It’s arguably the antithesis of Stravinsky’s own intentions – but it certainly packs more of a punch. It is Russian to the core.

Similar concerns appear on Igor Stravinsky in 4 Deals. This presents four live-recorded works, one conducted by Stravinsky, the rest interpretations by other well-known conductors.

Jeu de Cartes, the 1936 ballet played by the Sinfonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (or the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, as they are known in English) and conducted by Stravinsky himself, is not bad – the performers clearly know their stuff – but it has a tendency to plod.

However, Bernard Haitink’s interpretation of the composer’s Violin Concerto (1931) – performed by the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux, with David Oistrakh on the violin – manages to be significantly more delightful, especially in its playful approach to the composer’s famous crossed rhythms.

Just as most conductors don’t make good composers, the same is true for composers that dabble with the conductor’s baton. But what makes these Stravinsky recordings fascinating is they offer a clue about the composer’s own intentions at the time – a valuable insight for biographers.

As we all know from personal experience, people change. Certainly, the Stravinsky conducting his Scherzo Fireworks in 1962 (also on Igor Stravinsky in USSR) was very different to the youth who composed it more than half a century earlier, in 1908.

So we shouldn’t become bogged down, slavishly following these interpretations. Instead, we add them to the mix and enjoy the debate – because that’s what keeps the music alive.

Published: July 31, 2016 04:00 AM


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