Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Stravinsky's ballets

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the eighth installment, I re-examine the ballets of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Often denoted as the most important composer of the 20th century, I personally find many of his ballets far more worthwhile than his other works. Although I don't have them all, what I have should suffice for an interesting comparison, spanning almost half a century of his oeuvre.

My version:London Symphony Orchestra/Abbado (DG, 1975, 19 min)
A century ago, this must have sounded daringly modern to ballet audiences used to the melodic Tchaikovsky ballets of just a few decades earlier. Strong orchestral colours, lovely tunes rooted in folk songs, and a musical palette that owes a lot to the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. It works in the concert hall as well, even though it is less easy to visualize - it can stand on its own as a great piece of music, if just falling short of the splendor of its two successors.

My version: Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Dorati (Decca, 1981, 34 min)
Petrushka is the story of a Russian traditional puppet, made of straw and with a bag of sawdust as his body, who comes to life and develops emotions. The music is a notch more conventional than the Firebird, a delightful blend of folk song like melodies, exciting dance rhythms and wonderful instrumentation. The music and the images it provokes is so strong that you can imagine the dancers yourself whilst listening to it. My second favourite ballet score of all time. Essential.

My version [1]: London Symphony Orchestra/Abbado (DG, 1976, 36 min)
My version [2]: Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Dorati (Decca, 1982, 34 min)
Two years after Petrushka, Stravinsky dropped a musical bomb on an unsuspecting Paris audience. The primitive setting of the ballet (translated as The rite of spring, and depicting a pagan ritual) and the almost barbaric rhythms caused a riot, and not in a positive way. The composition remains one of the most important in all of classical music, with exquisite instrumentation, wonderful melodic snippets, and a pervasive rhythm. You must have heard it - and if not, you must hear it. Hors concours, one of the greatest compositions of all time.

My version: Northern Sinfonia Orchestra/Rattle (EMI, 1978, 39 min)
It is very difficult for me to remain even partially objective about this work, as I very much do not like the neo-classical style this helped create. It is undoubtedly original in its collation of fragments from music dating back to the likes of Pergolesi, and the inclusion of solo voices (Jennifer Smith, soprano, John Fryatt, tenor, Malcolm King, bass) in a ballet composition. In the end though, I still do not like this one no matter how hard I try.

My version: London Symphony Orchestra/Thomas (RCA, 1997, 18 min)
One of his less often played efforts in the genre, and subject of a delightful anecdote: it was commissioned by impresario Billy Rose for the revue Seven lively arts. Rose was bothered by the orchestration and sent a message: "great success - could be sensational if you authorize retouch orchestration by Russell Bennett" - to which Stravinsky replied: "satisfied with great success". The music as such holds up pretty well without ballet images, with strong melodic lines, and frankly should be heard more often in the concert hall.

Agon (1957)
My version: London Symphony Orchestra/Thomas (RCA, 1997, 24 min)
This neoclassical ballet has no story as such, but consists of a series of dance movements in which various groups of dancers interact in pairs, trios, quartets etc. A number of the movements are based on 17th-century French court dances such as the saraband, galliard and bransle. The music ranges from solemn to sensual, with plenty of rhythmic surprises, and full of orchestral colours. In the end though there are too few tuneful moments to hold my attention.

Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:

Hors concours: The rite of spring (Le sacre du printemps)
Essential: Petrushka
Important: Firebird
Good to have: Scenes de ballet
Not required: Agon, Pulcinella