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Igor Stravinsky
Pulcinella; Symphony in Three Movements; Four Etudes.
Roxana Constantinescu, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; Kyle Ketelsen, bass-baritone (in Pulcinella); Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, conductor
Review By Joe Milicia


  Pierre Boulez' musical tastes may have broadened over the years (though his performing repertoire must be the smallest among today's major conductors), but his negative opinion of a significant chunk of Igor Stravinsky's output has clearly not changed. In his interview with Philip Huscher that replaces the usual program notes in the CD booklet at hand, Boulez calls the "serious" works of Stravinsky's neoclassical period the opera Oedipus Rex, the ballets Apollo and Jeu de cartes "contrived, forced," a "dead end" that is not even "an interesting detour"! As for the Symphony in Three Movements, "the second movement is pure neoclassicism and that's not the best movement in my opinion... The best parts are... for me the first movement and part of the third, where he has an illustration of something in his mind" that is, Stravinsky is best as a musical storyteller, as in his great early ballets, rather than as an abstract thinker like Brahms, Bruckner or Beethoven. Well, it's refreshing to encounter a conductor nervy enough to make disparaging remarks about the very work he's offering on the CD, though lovers of the entire symphony, or indeed of Stravinsky's whole neoclassical phase, may find it more outrageous than refreshing.

Pulcinella escapes this general condemnation, even though it's a prime example of neoclassicism, because it's playful, "a game," "a work I like to conduct, because it's like a toy in my hand." Fair enough. Boulez has previously recorded the Suite, on a 1978 Columbia LP with the New York Philharmonic (currently available on a remastered Sony CD with some different pairings), but this is his first go at the complete ballet, which runs a little under 40 minutes and features vocalists in 9 out of the 22 sections. Stravinsky was persuaded by Sergei Diaghilev in 1919 to write a ballet featuring music by Pergolesi: it was to be a follow-up to two other Ballets Russes productions using arrangements of 18th-Century Neopolitan music. Charmed by the music (much of which he and Diaghilev did not know was wrongly attributed to Pergolesi), Stravinsky reshaped it and created delightful orchestrations for the original production, which featured sets by Pablo Picasso, the title role of the commedia dell'arte lover danced by Leonid Massine, and the 33-piece orchestra led by a young Ernest Ansermet.

Boulez' new performance is very comparable to his New York Philharmonic recording of the Suite, taking into account the differing timbres of the solo players and, even more, the warmer and more detailed sound of the CSO-Resound disc (which I heard in stereo rather than surround sound) compared to the slightly muddy-sounding original LP. Sound quality and timbres aside, now that I've become more acquainted with the complete ballet, I'll want to return to it rather than the Suite: I now prefer the sound of the tenor voice taking over the melody of the Serenata (the second number) after the oboe's initial statement, and would miss hearing the roughly 40% "new" music in the complete ballet. Boulez's CSO performance is certainly a good choice: genial in the opening sections, really energized in the vigorous movements like the Allegro assai (after the first soprano solo) and the Tarantella, and featuring such lovely instrumental solos as those of First Oboe Eugene Izotov in the Serenata and indeed throughout.

However, there is serious competition in Stravinsky's own 1965 recording with the L.A. pickup "Columbia Symphony Orchestra," part of a Sony 22-CD set that is available from Amazon at an astounding price, less than twice the cost of one "full-price" CD. The composer is a formidable conductor of his own music, and the sound of this recording is strikingly good for its vintage. Even if the players don't have the rounded presence of Boulez' soloists, thanks to CSO's sound engineers, individual details come across more clearly in Stravinsky's own recording, notably the special "thrumming" of the tips of the bows in the string accompaniment in the Serenata. The composer also takes some effectively brisker tempos than Boulez, as in the Serenata and the opening section--faster than his own tempo markings call for in the 1965 edition of the score. As for the vocal soloists, Boulez' Nicolas Phan has a greater agility and sometimes more accurate pitch than Stravinsky's George Shirley, and while I find the timbre of Irene Jordan's voice more attractive than that of Boulez' Roxana Constantinescu, the latter is, like Phan, more agile and alert to the 18th-century musical style that is still at the heart of this modernist's vision. Stravinsky's Donald Gramm has a lighter timbre than Boulez' Kyle Ketelsen (though the former is listed as "bass" on the LP shamefully, the singers' names are left out of the Sony set and the latter as "bass-baritone"), but he offers a more characterful, even witty, performance. In the brief but glorious Andante for all three voices, both Stravinsky's and Boulez' trios blend beautifully, but Stravinsky's is the more passionate reading.

The Symphony in Three Movements, premiered 26 years after Pulcinella, occupies a very different realm, and the term "neoclassical" seems highly inadequate or misleading even applied to the slow movement. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic (who premiered it under the composer's baton) and written during World War II, the work has no stated program, except that in a note for the original performance Stravinsky wrote that the piece was naturally touched "by this arduous time of sharp and shifting events, of despair and hope, of continual torments, of tension, and, at last, cessation and relief." This is surely the best, most accurately descriptive short comment that has been written about the work. Years later, in one of his published books of conversations with Robert Craft, Stravinsky admitted to much more specific connections between certain passages and some "abhorrent" images from newsreels and documentaries he had viewed the savage aftermath of the Japanese invasion of China in the first movement, goose-stepping German soldiers in the finale which had reminded him of some brutal attacks by Nazi thugs he had witnessed in Munich in 1932. But regardless of Stravinsky's own belated statements, or of some musicologists' carping that the work is not a "true" symphony because it doesn't feature techniques of tonal transformations of musical motifs (even if it has quasi-recapitulations of certain passages), or of Boulez claiming that Stravinsky is generally less than successful in non-ballet-storytelling music, the Symphony in Three Movements is for many listeners as exciting and memorable a work of "pure" music as anything in the modern repertoire. Certainly it has been championed by major conductors from Michael Tilson Thomas to Valery Gergiev. (I recall an exciting and ultimately joyous live performance by the former with the San Francisco Symphony, while reviews of Gergiev's recent live performances indicated that he was pushing it as far as it could go toward a "War Symphony" la Shostakovich or Prokofiev.)

As for Boulez' performance, he is sensitive to the colors of the piece woodwind passages, especially with prominent flutes, are outstanding but compared to Stravinsky's own 1961 recording, again with a pickup Columbia Symphony Orchestra, it is seriously lacking in rhythmic energy, not only in the outer movements but in the more leisurely Andante, where Stravinsky is more piquant in his handling of winds and harp. And again, the sound on Sony's CD transfer is very respectable, with ample clarity, directionality and force, making it a better choice.

As a bonus, CSO-Resound and Boulez include Four Etudes, Stravinsky's 1928 orchestration of his first published piece of chamber music, the 1914 Three Etudes for String Quartet, plus the 1921 Etude for Player-Piano. A little over 10 minutes in total length, these "studies" consist of a brief circus-y Danse, the aptly named Excentrique (portraying a famous English clown), a slow Cantique with choirs of woodwinds and strings playing in alternation, and the Spanish-inflected Madrid. In his CD-booklet interview Boulez finds these pieces fascinatingly original and brilliantly orchestrated (the orchestra is large but the scoring sparse), and his performance with the CSO conveys the pleasure these pieces give him. Stravinsky's own 1962 reading with the CBC Symphony is quite fine incidentally, slower in the first three Etudes but faster in Madrid but I prefer Boulez' lighter, gentler touch in the Cantique.

Boulez' program is arranged effectively with the formidable Symphony first, then the Etudes for a refreshing transition, and the genial Pulcinella to conclude the disc. Despite my reservations about Boulez' rendition of the Symphony, I highly recommend the CD for listeners wanting to acquaint themselves with the Etudes and the full Pulcinella, or indeed those wanting to hear the CSO play the Symphony in excellent sound. If you already have the 22-CD Stravinsky set, the new disc is more optional.





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