Ragtime for Eleven Instruments
SACD: PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 046
Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie of Bremen, which he now directs, assemble here a collection of Stravinsky's works from after the dust had settled from his three succès de scandale, The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). Except for the "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto (1937-38) and the String Concerto in D (1946), he wrote everything here between the last year of World War I and the early ‘twenties. These are all small-scale pieces too — in the case of the earlier ones partly because Stravinsky had retreated to Switzerland during the war, where he had no access to the resources of the Ballets Russes. In most of them we also see him moving away from his Russian musical roots and embracing the cooler style that reached full bloom in his neo-classicism of the 1930s through 1950s. In his notes to the disc, Järvi says that "already as a youngster, [he] wanted to record a CD with exactly these pieces." Dreams fulfilled are always worth the wait, and so, for the most part, is this disc.
Stravinsky collaborated with the Swiss novelist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz to create L'Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier's Tale) in 1918. A small work for three narrators, dancers, and a seven-piece ensemble, it tells the story of a soldier who sells his soul to the devil, and it was meant to be easily staged and adaptable to many venues. The instrumental suite, which includes a march, a waltz, a tango, some ragtime and a chorale, is well played by the seven soloists of the Kammerphilharmonie and Järvi. They create a wistful, even melancholy feeling in the piece, which is especially appropriate to its opening quieter movements. But their approach to the work is generally subdued throughout; only in the last movements do the players really let loose.
There is an interpretive argument to be made for maintaining some ironic detachment here, but comparing Järvi's interpretation to, say, Stokowski's 1967 recording (Vanguard), I prefer the older maestro's altogether scrappier account. It feels folksier, more demonic. And Stokowski's handpicked soloists are every bit as virtuoso as the Bremen players. (I prefer his trumpeter Theodore Weis to Christopher Dicken on the newer recording.) This older recording also still sounds remarkably fresh and present. (In fact, it appears that Artemis plans to reissue this account in a hybrid SACD format.)
Actually the devil-may-care zest that I wanted in the Histoire surfaces in the "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto, performed here with more gas than one usually expects in a piece — inspired by Bach's Brandenburg Concertos — that supposedly reflects Stravinsky's calmer, neo-classical mood. This is a punchy account played with flair.
Järvi's interpretation of the Histoire du Soldat leaves me a bit cold; I like the slightly sinister feel he brings to the "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto; but I am really wowed by what he and his players do with the last three works on the disc.
I've never heard the String Concerto in D played with better ensemble and such attention to detail. Each movement here shimmers with precision, yet nothing sounds cold. This incandescent performance may be the best thing on the disc. The two suites for small orchestra may seem slight, but they showcase one of Stravinsky's best talents: his ability to deconstruct traditional musical forms with penetrating insight and, in the case of these suites, sly humor. Both suites dissect the nature of dance. In the First Suite (1917-25) he explores traditional ethnic dances of Italy, Spain and Greece. In the Second Suite (1921) he plays with a march — so slowed down it becomes both witty and a little ominous — a waltz, a polka, and a manic gallop. In both suites the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie finally seems to throw caution to the wind. These are vigorous accounts full of virtuoso playing, fire, and a good deal of wit.
This hybrid Super Audio CD is very well engineered. The SACD surround sound is subtle, delivering a very full audio presence and a vivid sense of the placement of the instruments on the stage, especially in the Histoire and the "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto. Make some room among all your Firebirds, Petrushkas, and Rites for this high-quality offering of the intimate side of Stravinsky.