STRAVINSKY: Apollon Musagète; Oedipus Rex; Symphonies of Wind Instruments; Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra; Jeu de Cartes; Symphony in Three Movements.
Peter Pears (tenor); Martha Mödl (mezzo); Heinz Rehfuss (baritone); Otto von Rohr (bass); Helmut Krebs (tenor); Werner Hessenland (speaker); Maria Bergmann (piano); Cologne Radio Orchestra; SWF Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, cond.
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1184 (2 disks) (MONO (F) (AAD) TT: 150:02

Stravinsky began his conducting career at roughly the age of 50 for the most practical of reasons: he needed the money. The income derived from his family properties in Russia dried up with the Revolution, and he had a sick wife and son to support. As a conductor, he never got nearly as good as he was as a composer, and indeed most orchestral musicians who played under him report that he had little technique. Don't expect a Markevitch, a Boulez, or a Bernstein. With the exception of a few scores -- the ones he performed again and again -- he didn't know his own music as well as even a mediocre conductor does. He knew it as a composer. That is, he had strong opinions on how the music should go, but he could be (to put it charitably) a bit loose on the gritty details of things like what entrances to cue. Many report that early on, Stravinsky the conductor rarely lifted his head even out of his own scores (he also conducted other composers, notably his favorite Tchaikovsky). However, don't underestimate the power of money. He dedicated himself to a conducting career, once he found out exactly how well it paid. In fact, he became rather catty about conductors he had previously praised in his own music, like Monteux and Koussevitzky. The only two he publicly admired who had made names for themselves in his work, Boulez and Bernstein, he praised when it no longer mattered to him financially. He reacted to Bernstein's Columbia stereo recording of Le Sacre with "Wow," and seemed absurdly grateful for Boulez even taking an interest. Furthermore, for a composer who railed against "interpretation," Stravinsky's recorded performances differ from one another by quite a lot. Indeed, musicians never knew quite what to expect from him from one rehearsal to the next, let alone from rehearsal to performance. He conducted his work the way he felt it at the moment and considered it the orchestra's job to follow him.

Nevertheless, over the course of years of recordings, it becomes clear that Stravinsky did have a remarkably consistent point of view toward his scores, despite vagaries mainly of tempi. No matter what the recording technology, one notices a dryness of sound. He insists on textural clarity and sharp, even stinging attack. Legato . . . not so much. This, of course, runs counter to the training of almost every classical musician, where the singing phrase is the holy grail of playing. Lukas Foss, at one time orchestral pianist for Koussevitzky's Boston Symphony, has spoken many times of his dismay as the Boston musicians taunted the composer during rehearsal and basically ignored his instructions. It seems incredible today that musicians wouldn't even listen to him, but from about the Thirties through the mid-Forties, many thought of Stravinsky as a mere poseur, rather than as one of the great composers of his time. Acknowledging Stravinsky's faults as a conductor and adding that his idiosyncratic English didn't help matters, Foss nevertheless added, "What they could have learned from a musical mind like that!"

Despite his troubles, Stravinsky gradually improved. By 1950, he wasn't terrible, and by the end of the decade one could consider him authoritative in his own music. By then, he had reached his eighties, however, and more and more of the conducting chores fell to his musical assistant/amanuensis/spiritual guide, Robert Craft. Often Craft would prepare the orchestras in rehearsal, and Stravinsky would step in for the dress run-through and stage performance. Occasionally, rumors pop up that Craft, not Stravinsky, led some of the late recording sessions attributed to the composer. I have no idea whether the rumors are true.

This two-CD set presents two broadcast concerts, the Cologne from 1951 and the Baden-Baden from 1954. The second concert easily surpasses the first, but that's probably due to the fact that the SWF belonged to Hans Rosbaud, a great Mozartean and yielding nothing to any other conductor of his time in Modern repertoire. Stravinsky and Schoenberg were his meat.

The Apollon Musagète shows Stravinsky at his baton-wielding worst, a performance almost always on the verge of collapse. The Oedipus Rex, on the other hand, crackles. It was one of the composer's favorites of his own pieces. I'm surprised that it never achieved the popularity of Symphony of Psalms or even of Les Noces. This happens to be the performance that introduced me to the work, appearing in the United States on the Columbia label. I was about thirteen years old, and it bowled me over. I even managed to check out the score from the Public Library and go at it on my family's spinet piano. I burned to compose something so powerful, but unfortunately (and predictably) lacked the talent. The major difference between the LP and this CD release is a matter of the narration. Stravinsky specified that the linking narrative (by Jean Cocteau, who also provided the rest of the libretto in French, immediately translated into Latin by another hand) be spoken in the language of the country of performance. The CD, therefore, gives the German version. On the LP, the engineers substitute Cocteau himself declaiming his original French. The sound of that voice, edgy and challenging, like the Delphic oracle herself, immediately arrests you. The German here evokes a banker delivering the quarterly report. Martha Mödl conveys the hysteria of Jocasta, but the faster music quite frankly gets away from her. She misses notes like crazy in a fiendishly difficult part. Heinz Rehfuss does better as Creon -- stiff, even pompous -- with a tone like a trumpet. However, Peter Pears in the title role simply amazes. For those of you who know only his later work -- the deadening fuzz about the voice, the dithering about the pitch, the difficulty sustaining notes -- this performance should come as a revelation: a bright, heroic tenor, a subtle intelligence that shades the character, a dead-on intonation. Pears delivered many classic recorded performances, even past his vocal prime, and this has to be one of his best.

Again, one notices a huge leap upward in performance level with the second CD from Rosbaud's SWF Symphony Orchestra. We hear Stravinsky's conception of orchestral sound, almost for the first time. Rhythms are meticulous, ensemble shows an uncanny unanimity, and attacks are practically flicked. This works to tremendous advantage in the Symphonies of Wind Instruments -- an odd piece, even for Stravinsky, who composed it in memory of Debussy, shortly after the latter's death. It's a hard work to "put over," In fact, this remains one of the best readings out there, even after more than half a century. In other hands, including some famous ones, the work all too often bogs down. The piece seems to invoke ritual, like the Mass of 1948 (which suffers similar performance problems). If the conductor doesn't take proper care, the audience can easily wink out. There are no "jolts" in this piece to nudge the listener in the ribs. Stravinsky manages to shape a musical -- not drama, exactly -- rather a wave line, a sense of irresistible forward impulse. The Capriccio, which Stravinsky wrote for himself as a concert pianist (his own piano concerto proved too difficult for him), was one of the works Stravinsky the performer knew best. The reading is skittish, nervy, and it moves like gangbusters, even in the slow movement. Soloist Maria Bergmann has trouble finding the rhythmic groove in the first movement, but she settles down by the second. Jeu de Cartes remained an affectionate favorite of the composer's. His pleasure in the music shows here.

If you read Robert Simpson's Penguin book on the modern symphony, you won't find one example by Stravinsky. In his very influential introduction, Simpson explained why he excluded both Stravinsky and Hindemith. For Simpson, the symphony was "about" progression and transformation, encapsulated in the metaphor of "symphonic argument." Simpson maintains that what Stravinsky called symphonies lacked argument in this sense. You can see his point, although I believe the Symphony in C comes pretty close to symphonic convention. Simpson sees no difference in approach between Stravinsky's ballets and his symphonies. This applies fairly strongly to the Symphony in Three Movements. It juxtaposes episodes rather than develops an argument. This says nothing about the quality of the work, as Simpson himself admits, but it does describe a compositional approach. When I first heard this work, I thought it came much earlier in Stravinsky's career. I'm not alone. Some critics at the time compared its violence to Le Sacre. It reminds me a bit of that ballet revisited about thirty years later. The cool objectivism of the previous Symphony in C disappears in favor of heavy tread and grotesque scream. However, one can never return to the exact place one left. The composer has reined in the Dionysian extremism of Le Sacre with the monumentality of his weightier neoclassic works. The Angst of the symphony comes from Stravinsky's addiction to the contemporary newsreels of World War II. Indeed, at times it seems a ballet for newsreels. I first heard Otto Klemperer in this, and I should say I always preferred Klemperer in 20th-century music to his etched-in-granite forays into the 19th century. Here, he delivered an account of extraordinary power. In a much different reading, Stravinsky yields nothing to Klemperer. It moves, predictably, more fleetly, again with an odd, electrifying nervousness. Klemperer and Stravinsky show two different faces of dread.

I can claim some familiarity with the original LPs. The transfers do wonders to remove the tinniness while keeping the textural clarity, although the sound remains a bit flat. There's also a glitch, probably from the masters, in the "Apotheosis" of Apollon, but it's so small, you can easily miss it.

S.G.S. (August 2006)