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11.2.06

Stravinsky, Rare Orchestral Works

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Igor Stravinsky, Orchestral Works, Stuttgarter Kammerorchester, Dennis Russell Davies, ECM New Series 1826 4721862, released July 25, 2005
On this recent release in the ECM New Series, conductor Dennis Russell Davies leads the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester in four lesser-known works by Igor Stravinsky for small orchestra. This disc marks the 60th anniversary year of the chamber orchestra from Stuttgart, Germany. When Karl Münchinger founded the SKO in 1945, it was devoted to the attempt to interpret the works of J. S. Bach without the Romantic trappings then in favor, making it in effect a sort of early music group. Trevor Pinnock has conducted them, and so has Helmuth Rilling, in a number of performances of Bach. In recent years under Dennis Russell Davies, the group has continued to perform 18th-century music along with more recent pieces by Shostakovich, Schnittke, and now Stravinsky, as well as some new commissions by Dutilleux, Glass, and others.

The latest piece on the disc is Monumentum pro Gesualdo (1960), Stravinsky's reworking of three madrigals by the Prince of Venosa, in a late, modified 12-tone style. There is a Webernesque pointillism in the way that Stravinsky dissects the contrapuntal lines and, as in a Cubist painting, rearranges them. The second movement, based on Ma tu, cagion di quella (fifth book, madrigal 18), has a Gabrieli sound to it because of the large brass and woodwind textures. There is not much of Gesualdo's music that remains, except for that late Renaissance fascination with chromaticism, both in individual lines and in harmonic shifts that are jarringly chromatic. However, if I heard this music without knowing what was the basis, I would probably not guess Gesualdo.

Stravinsky composed the Danses concertantes while he was living in Los Angeles and saw it premiered there in 1942. That this music sounds so American intrigues me, or does a certain brand of American modernism (think Copland, Bernstein) owe much of its sound to neoclassical Stravinsky? This is a great piece of music, in a very good performance informed by a spirit of dance, worth repeated listening. Did writing music for ballet dancers keep composers like Ravel and Stravinsky from fully embracing the most radical of 20th-century harmonic styles? Even in his most dissonant ballet scores, there is still something innately beautiful about Stravinsky's music, at least to my ears. Dance was certainly fundamental to his musical instincts. Although the Concerto in D was written as a concert piece for the strings of the Basel Chamber Orchestra and Paul Sacher in 1946, Jerome Robbins used it as a ballet score shortly thereafter (The Cage, New York City Ballet, 1951). It's easy to see why, as the score is evocative and pulsing with interesting if sometimes irregular rhythmic patterns.

Apollon musagète (Apollo, leader of the muses), from 1927-28, is the only piece here that was originally composed as a ballet score. That is odd in one sense, given the minute-long violin solo, echoing the unaccompanied works of Bach and Ysaÿe, that introduces and pervades the Variation d'Apollon here. Of course, as Stravinsky has it, Apollo's choice among three of the muses favors wild Terpsichore, and the muse of dance (and music) ends up in the pas de deux with Apollo, not brainy Calliope (eloquence, epic poetry) or that wet blanket Polyhymnia (sacred poetry).

In general, this is another successful disc in the ECM New Series, with a fine performance captured in good sound, plus excellent liner notes by Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich, translated by Richard Evidon. At the same time, while the hard-to-find Monumentum pro Gesualdo makes this recording an obvious choice for a serious collector, there is nothing so revelatory about it that makes it a must-buy candidate. If you are looking for a lush reading of lesser Stravinsky works, you will find it here. It doesn't get any lusher than the gorgeous final Apothéose of Apollon musagète, in sections of which the group's experience with the long, clashing lines of Baroque concerti (think Corelli, for example) must have come in handy.

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