Stravinsky on the Podium and at the Piano, Part 2

I have begun a series of articles on Igor Stravinsky's performances (both as conductor and pianist) of his own music. The first article is available here, which takes us up to about 1938.

Let's begin this next installment with an interesting bit of information from Stravinsky in 1961, quoted by Robert Craft:

Goddard Lieberson is responsible for my whole recording career in the United States, since it was he who convinced me to record The Rite of Spring in April, 1940. I knew Goddard only distantly then. I knew his wife ten years before that and only with difficulty can I relate the young A & R executive with the man who has for the last decade been one of my dearest friends. Goddard Lieberson has always held that the sales department of a record company must not be allowed to dictate to the artists and repertory department and to that policy the whole of contemporary music is indebted, for Columbia Records, thanks to Goddard Lieberson, has almost single-handedly championed the modern composer rather than the established mediocrities amongst performers. Goddard Lieberson is a man of great talents and illuminating wit. He is also extremely gentle and is a man who is constantly learning, reading, developing. I cannot say more of someone of whom I am so fond.

There are some bombshells in that quote, particularly that bit about not allowing the sales department to dictate to the artists and repertory department. You didn't come across that kind of attitude at the major labels as a rule; nowadays you will find it primarily in the smaller independent labels such as Naxos, Harmonia Mundi, BIS, and CPO. (But you will not find it at Sony.)

Lieberson (pictured right), let us hope, now dwells in an elevated circle of recording heaven; this man of erudition and discernment was only too well aware of a recording company's obligation to the future to document the music of the major masters of the day. Even more to his credit, he had the wit to channel some of the immense profits from Columbia Masterworks' hit Broadway albums (South Pacific, My Fair Lady, Camelot, West Side Story, etc.) into the classical division to help sponsor projects such the Stravinsky recordings.

Consider that Rite of Spring to which Stravinsky alludes: it remains one of the great signature recordings of the work, despite a series of problems that mar the final Sacrificial Dance. The New York Philharmonic wasn't all that familiar with the work, and the rehearsals were plagued by a number of inconsistencies with the orchestral parts. According to Robert Craft, those problems resulted in Stravinsky's re-studying his own score, with the result that he was much better prepared to conduct the work than he might have been otherwise.

It's probably Stravinsky's best among his three recorded Sacres (1929, 1940, 1960), certainly the most involved, exciting, and energetic. Although the overall best digital transfer is on the Andante Volume 1 collection (out of print), you can also find it in this Pearl release.

Stravinsky and the NY Phil also gave us a spunky set of excerpts from Petrushka during the same sessions as Le Sacre, both dated April 4, 1940. (The Andante set lists the Sacre recording date as April 29, which can't be right.)

From this auspicious beginning, Stravinsky's "American" era was well under way. Before 1940, when in August he applied for U.S. citizenship, Stravinsky had enjoyed a steady stream of American connections and commissions. (The Symphony of Psalms was, after all, written for the Boston Symphony.) He was no stranger to the country or its people, but now he was to become an American, living on North Wetherly Drive in Hollywood, no less.

Several years before moving to the United States Stravinsky had produced his effervescent Dumbarton Oaks concerto, named after the home (left) of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, generous arts patrons in the Washington D.C. area. Stravinsky did not conduct the premiere (Nadia Boulanger officiated instead) nor did he conduct the first recording (that honor went to Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and the Chamber Orchestra of the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra.)

However, Stravinsky did finally give us his version of the work with the "Dumbarton Oaks Festival Orchestra", recorded in New York on April 28, 1947.

I note that the opening movement's tempo has in general accelerated over the course of its recorded history: the Schmidt-Isserstedt of 1939 is the slowest at metronome = 84; Stravinsky's 1947 rendition runs around 89; Stravinsky's 1964 is at 94; and Robert Craft in 1992 clocks in at 97.

The American 1940s saw a kaleidoscope of unusual, generally short, works from Stravinsky as he focused on finding a foothold in his new country. He sought out the possibility of writing film scores, without conspicuous success. Nevertheless, a series of concert works -- Four Norwegian Moods, Scherzo à la Russe, and the stunning Symphony in Three Movements all contain music originally targeted for film use.

Stravinsky conducted the New York Philharmonic in the premiere of the Symphony in Three Movements on January 24, 1946 and proceeded to record the work on the 28th, thereby bequeathing us an authentic document of the works' original performance. The link is to the Andante Records collection (not the out-of-print first volume), but it is also available from Pearl.

Within a few weeks Stravinsky and the NY Phil also gave us the oddball Scénes de ballet, originally written for a Billy Rose review, as well as the Four Norwegian Moods, the Ode, and Stravinsky's little gift to Barnum & Bailey, the Circus Polka.

As he continued to explore his options in America, Stravinsky came up with the jazzy Ebony Concerto, written for Woody Herman's (right) Band and premiered in a concert at Carnegie Hall on March 25, 1946.

In August Stravinsky led the Hermann group in Hollywood for the work's first recording, another one of those marvelously authentic affairs with all of the original performers intact. (It isn't the best performance of the piece, by the way; the work was quite a stretch for the Herman band, but they brought it off quite well nonetheless.)

Contract disputes between Stravinsky and Columbia (and apparently some labor problems as well) led to his signing up with rival RCA Victor for a while. The "RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra" is not to be confused with the NBC Symphony (although RCA and NBC were part of the same corporation); typically the RCA Victor Symphony was a pickup orchestra drawn together of local musicians, more often than not in Hollywood.

That is not to disparage the group; the RCA is one of the better ensembles on the Stravinsky recordings. (After all, Los Angeles boasted a bevy of some of the finest orchestral musicians in the world, thanks to the high salaries offered by the film studios; in the 1960s such players would staff the West Coast version of the "Columbia Symphony Orchestra".)

Among the Stravinsky/RCA recordings, we have the Dances concertantes, Scherzo à la Russe, and vintage Stravinskian champagne brut, the Concerto in D (1950.)

The New York-based version of the RCA orchestra was Stravinsky's partner for the premiere recording of Orpheus, the last of Stravinsky's purely neo-Classical ballets; you will not hear a lovelier performance of this calmly enchanting work, including Stravinsky's later 1964 outing with no less than the Chicago Symphony. The same group also gave us Stravinsky's finest rendition of Apollo, a pre-war work to be sure, but never given a more refined performance, with John Corigliano Sr. on violin.

Perhaps this is the best place to bring up Stravinsky's so-called "objectivity" as a conductor, in that he eschewed open displays of emotionalism in performance and instead sought to portray the contents of the printed page as faithfully as possible. Well, that's what he said, but he was a human being with his own passions, as were the people playing under his supervision. People are not machines, and do not play with pure objectivity.

In fact, Stravinsky's own recordings are filled with individuality, not only from him but from the players. He keeps a steady beat, observes his own metronome markings (for the most part) and in general helms the orchestra like a good sergeant-at-arms. But there's nothing cold or clinical about any of it; as he once famously said to an orchestra player: "I like my music!"

In the early-to-mid 1950s, Stravinsky conducted several radio orchestras (Cologne and Baden-Baden) in performances of various works, including Apollo, Oedipus Rex (with tenor Peter Pears), Symphonies of wind instruments, the Capriccio for piano and orchestra, Jeu de cartes, and the Symphony in Three Movements. These recordings have all been preserved for us by Music & Arts, on a handsome 2-CD set. (Note that a bit of searching about will reveal more Stravinsky broadcast recordings such as these.)

Music & Arts has recently added a set of concert performances from the same era, almost all with the SWF Orchestra of Baden-Baden.

Stravinsky's eloquent, austere Mass saw its world premiere in Milan in 1948; Stravinsky gave us the premiere recording on RCA in February of 1949 with a small choir and a carefully selected group of instrumentalists. (This is one of the monophonic-era Stravinsky recordings which is vastly better than the later stereo remake.) The same sessions with the choir also produced the Ave Maria and the Pater Noster.

A major work of the late 1930s, the Symphony in C, received a stellar performance from Stravinsky and the Cleveland Orchestra in 1952. A digitally-remastered CD, Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky: The Mono Years 1952-1955 includes this as well as a number of excellent performances with Cleveland and New York musicians. It's out of print but the link will take you to secondhand copies available from Amazon.

The 1950s saw two landmarks in Stravinsky's career: his opera The Rake's Progress, and his conversion to the 12-tonal idiom.

The Rake's Progress can be heard in its premiere setting, live from Venice in 1951 at La Fenice, although the orchestra and chorus were from La Scala. It has its advantages, but Stravinsky's later stereo remake is a better performance, as are the many newer recordings of this increasingly popular work.

With Stravinsky's gradual adoption of 12-tonal techniques (although he was never slavish about it), he continued to stay on the forefront of modern composers but, it must be said, lost a significant portion of his audience in the process, never to regain them. To this day, Stravinsky's 12-tonal works of the 1950s and 60s remain the least-known of his output, sadly.

However, the fascinating ballet Agon of 1957 stands as an exception; his last original collaboration with George Balanchine (pictured to the left with Stravinsky), it has been popular from its inception both as a ballet and as a purely orchestral work. Lively, funny, and filled with that oh-so-arch Stravinskian wit, Agon is one of Stravinsky's masterworks. Fortunately, we've got it in an original performance from the Los Angeles Festival Symphony in 1957.

This recording makes a good cutoff point, given that it is available on the Sony reissue of the complete Stravinsky/Columbia recordings, which will be the topic of the next article.