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CLASSICAL  February 2009

CLASSICAL February 2009

Subject:

Rattle's Stravinsky

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 24 Feb 2009 11:23:37 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

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[Online see: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/e/emi07630b.php ]

Igor Stravinsky
Symphonies

*  Symphony in Three Movements
*  Symphony of Psalms
*  Symphony in C

Berlin Radio Choir; Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle.
EMI 50999 2 07630 0 8  Total time: 76:39

Summary for the Busy Executive: They shouldn't have bothered.

Stravinsky wrote four symphonies, if you don't count the Symphonies
of Wind Instruments (and I don't).  His first, in E-flat, represented
his graduation exam from his study with Rimsky-Korsakov.  It's a very
Rimskian work, as you might expect, and I find it charming.  His next
three, pretty much sui generis, don't follow the Central European models,
and critics have taken their shots accordingly.  The main criticism
lies along the lines of the lack of thematic transformation.  In Robert
Simpson's formulation, Stravinsky's symphonies don't differ in method
from his ballets, which basically string together episodes.  Nevertheless,
these scores exercised great influence on symphonists in the Forties,
particularly in the United States.  Furthermore, a certain strain of
Russian thought -- particularly associated with elements of the kuchka
-- always regarded classical symphonic procedures with suspicion.  All
three of Stravinsky's symphonies show a degree of assurance and clarity
that comes only from a master composer.

Robert Simpson's criticism also slights the ballets from Le Sacre on.
Of course you get little thematic transformation or motific argument.
Yet these works cohere over a long span, the feeling of coherence one
gets in symphonies.  Undoubtedly not traditional symphonies, they
nevertheless lay out fruitful paths.  Nielsen and Simpson didn't write
traditional symphonies either.  I think it fair to say that Stravinsky
wrote symphonic ballets and balletic symphonies.

Symphony of Psalms comes from Koussevitzky's legendary commissions
marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony.  Besides the
Stravinsky, this series included Ravel's piano concerto in G, Prokofiev's
Fourth Symphony, Roussel's Third, Hanson's Second, Hindemith's Concert
Music for Brass and Strings, and Gershwin's Second Rhapsody.  Stravinsky's
score quickly became a choral classic, and not just of the modern era.
It's a unique work, filled with sounds you won't hear anywhere else, not
even in other Stravinsky.  The opening chord -- a sharp cuff -- though
a pure e-minor, is so spaced and orchestrated that it sounds like it's
in no key at all.  The double fugue that starts the second movement is
as once both complex and expressively clear.  The proportions are gorgeous,
with a succeeding movement roughly twice the length of its predecessor.
But beyond the brilliant workings, we breathe an atmosphere entirely new
to sacred music, new and old and oddly ritualistic at the same time,
with no attempt to paint pretty pictures of heaven.  This work stings,
boils with energy, and processes through sacred time.

The Symphony in C comes from a hard period in Stravinsky's life,
during which he lost his mother, his first wife, and his daughter all
in the same year.  He and his surviving children were also treated for
tuberculosis.  Writers usually argue that the symphony reflects none of
the personal strife.  To me, however, even before I knew of Stravinsky's
life, this has always been a symphony of classical tragedy.  From the
first, it put me in mind of the Mozart #40 in g.  To begin with, despite
the title, it often doesn't sound like C-major, but e-minor, and Stravinsky
keeps undermining the key of C by "weakly-rooted" chords and a lack of
dominant-tonic progressions.  Nevertheless, it's certainly the Stravinsky
symphony closest to classical models, with a faux-sonata first movement.
The sonata structure is there, complete with recapitulation, but, as
Simpson points out, the development is really an accumulation of episodes,
despite a rather sophisticated variation of motific cells and figures.
Stravinsky doesn't make an argument in the usual, Germanic sense.  Indeed,
he may even mock it here.  In a way, it reminds me of a Cubist collage
or of a kaleidoscopic pattern, with the same little bits in various parts
of the picture.  In the symphony, the same pieces show up in all four
movements.

Stravinsky assembled the Symphony in Three Movements from various
projects around the Forties including an abortive Concerto for Orchestra
and music to accompany the film The Song of Bernadette.  Stephen Walsh,
a leading Stravinsky scholar who provided the liner notes for this
release, talks about the similarities between this symphony and The Rite
of Spring.  To me, the symphony marks a compositional advance on The
Rite, particularly in its scoring.  The composer no longer feels the
need to impress you with his mastery of a super-colossal orchestra, and
he sublimates the descriptive impulse into something, again, very much
like a symphony.  I find as much of the Symphony of Psalms, particularly
as it pertains to the use of the orchestral piano in both.  For me,
Stravinsky revisits the rhythmic ferocity of The Rite, this time in
crisper, more incisive colors and gestures.  Stravinsky admitted to a
programmatic impulse, related to the progress of World War II, particularly
as seen in newsreels.  The first movement sprang from images of Nazi
mechanized warfare, the last movement from images of the Allied armies
on their way to victory.  The music brims with the thrill of that.  In
between lies a serene slow movement (the harp replaces the piano).  This
was going to be Stravinsky's music for a Hollywood movie.  It's incredibly
beautiful but so far away from what the producers would eventually accept,
that you realize Stravinsky simply had no clue about the nature of
commercial American films (the studio went with Alfred Newman instead).
Frankly, Stravinsky's music would be a tough Hollywood sell even today.

The performances disappoint big-time.  This is the Berlin Philharmonic,
after all.  I thought that Rattle's excitement and the BPO precision
would have scored a hit with this music.  However, I'd describe their
Symphony of Psalms as a hot steaming mess, particularly when the choir
enters and bland the rest of the time.  In the Symphony in Three Movements,
I miss the elemental power of Klemperer on EMI and even of Stravinsky
on Sony.  The Symphony in C fares best, since it seems the best played,
but it doesn't strike me as especially insightful.  The rhythms are
precise, but attacks have nothing behind them.  Rattle's BPO swaps power
(and each of these scores could alleviate the energy crisis) for an
insipid suavity.  I've never heard these works played with such serious
cluelessness.  The hell of it is, the Berlin has done both the later
symphonies much better under Boulez (on DGG).  I would also recommend
Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra on Sony before Rattle.  For the
Symphony of Psalms, nobody has beaten Robert Shaw on RCA (as far as I
know, never available on CD).  Shaw's Telarc remake is good, but not as
good.  In lieu of Shaw, I'd go with Karel Ancerl on Supraphon, and you
get a fine Oedipus Rex as a bonus.

Steve Schwartz

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