Stravinsky on the Podium and at the Piano, Part 3

This is the third in a three-article series on Igor Stravinsky's recorded performances of his own works. Up to now:

Now we reach the Columbia Masterworks stereo recordings of the late 1950s through late 1960s, mostly conducted by Stravinsky but also with the help of his assistant, advisor, stand-in, confidant, and sounding-board, Robert Craft.

These stand as one of the great recording projects of the 20th century, not only in their scope, but particularly in the nobility of purpose they represent. Of 20th century composers, only Benjamin Britten is as well documented performing his own works; Aaron Copland also comes to mind although to a lesser extent.

Special mention should be made of producer John McClure, a prince among classical record producers. His name is on almost all of the Stravinsky/Columbia recordings from about 1960 onwards -- and at the same time he was also overseeing the flood of Bernstein/NY Phil recordings.

That's the good news. The bad news is that Sony -- inheritor of the Columbia Masterworks catalog -- seems aversive towards allowing these recordings to stay in print, no matter how beautifully presented the various individual releases.

The Releases

In 1991, Sony/BMG brought out the whole shebang in a spiffy deluxe set, packaged in a sturdy plastic case, complete with lavish notes for each individual album as well as a booklet filled with pictures and reminiscences. The collection also included a fair number of historical recordings.

It has been off the market for a good long time, although it can be found on eBay or such places. Increasingly it has become a collector's item requiring handsome payment for a good-condition set.

Recently Sony re-released all 22 CDs without the fancy packaging or extensive annotation, for an astonishing bargain price. Unless you must have the older, more elaborate set, this is the one to get, but act fast: once again it's on its way out of print. ArkivMusic continues to stock it, fortunately, as do most of the other online CD stores.

An intriguing cross section can be found in The Original Jacket Collection: Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky, a 9-CD set reproducing the original jackets and liner notes from the original Columbia albums. It's an excellent selection, ranging from the 1960 Sacre du Printemps to MS 7054, one of the last albums in the series, which includes very late works such as the elegy for John F. Kennedy. I'm particularly fond of this set, given the memories it brings up of collecting these LPs as a kid -- I still have some of the originals, in fact.

The "Original Jackets" compilation is also becoming a bit tricky to find, but it definitely can be had.

Some individual CDs remain available, notably the big-ticket items such as Le Sacre, Firebird, or the album with the three major symphonies (Symphony of Psalms, Symphony in C, Symphony in Three Movements.)

I won't give links to individual works during the body of the article; assume that they can be found on the 22-CD set. A few recordings might require special mention, so I'll link to those as possible.

The Music

Doggone near Stravinsky's entire output is found somewhere on those 22 CDs, so I'm not planning to talk about the whole enchilada. Instead I'm concentrating on items of particular interest.

Let's start with the "Columbia Symphony Orchestra", encountered so frequently in these recordings. This was not an established, full-time orchestra, but a pair of pickup orchestras, one in New York, the other in Los Angeles. Robert Craft describes it as follows:

In actuality the Columbia Symphony was a pick-up ensemble of superior musicians who could not have managed a Brahms Symphony as well as an established symphony orchestra that plays together regularly but could decipher a difficult new opus by Sravinsky more efficiently and expeditiously than a standard-repertory orchestra. A second Columbia Symphony was created in Los Angeles, the superior of the two perhaps because of the quality of film studio players at the time.

Ballets: The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, Firebird, and Les noces

The third of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring recordings remains a sonic powerhouse featuring Columbia's 1960 recording technology at its very finest. Recorded by the New York orchestra, it doesn't offer the burnish of many contemporary performances (Tilson Thomas/SFO and Salonen/LA come to mind for hair-raising virtuosity), nor does it have the punch of Stravinsky's 1940 New York Philharmonic recording, but it remains an invaluable document nonetheless. This is the Sacre that I grew up on, and I'll bet I'm not alone in that experience.

A gorgeous, complete Firebird was put down with the Hollywood orchestra in 1961, and a sizzling Petrushka in its original 1911 version in 1960, also on the West Coast. (Craft is right about the two Columbia orchestras; the West Coast plays rings around its East Coast counterpart.)

There's a sweet tradition of performing Les noces with eminent composers at the four pianos. Stravinsky's 1959 version features Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, and Roger Sessions together with Margaret Hillis directing the American Concert Choir. Quite a lineup. Unfortunately the performance itself is a bit lackluster, certainly an improvement on Stravinsky's 1930's London recording, but is nonetheless plagued by sloppy ensemble and problematic diction.

If you can track it down, a Columbia Les noces from the 1960s conducted by Robert Craft "Supervised by the composer", with the Columbia Percussion Ensemble and the Ithaca Concert Choir under the direction of Gregg Smith, is one of the better performances around. (Columbia Masterworks MS 6991/mono ML 6391, paired with Stravinsky's "Mavra" with the CBC Symphony.)

This particular rendition (in Russian) seems to have evaporated from the catalogs in preference to Stravinsky's composer-fest or Craft's later outing with the International Piano Quartet. That's a pity; I really love this one. Try Googling "Columbia Masterworks MS 6991" and see what happens. The illustration below is medium-sized; for those who might be interested, this link is to a full-sized scan (5.15 mb) of the album cover.

Robert Craft's forgotten Les Noces, on Columbia MS 6991

L'Histoire du Soldat

The L'Histoire du Soldat on the 22-CD set is of the suite only, with the Columbia Chamber Ensemble sporting no less than Israel Baker on solo violin. They actually recorded the whole thing (in sessions from both 1961 and 1967), but never published it. Fortunately it has been released with a new narration by Jeremy Irons.

Other Highlights of the Set

  • Orpheus, in which the Chicago Symphony makes clear the meaning of the phrase "great orchestra".
  • Symphony in Three Movements, with the West Coast Columbia Symphony raising the roof in what remains in my opinion the all-time champion performance of Stravinsky's "war" symphony.
  • Symphony of Psalms, featuring the CBC Symphony and the Festival Singers of Toronto: the clear, austere singing and the crystalline engineering of the recording are standouts.
  • The CD of Songs, a mixed bag of orchestras, soloists, and conductors, containing treasures by a composer not usually thought of as a writer of lieder.

A Few Low Points

  • The two piano concertos (Capriccio and Piano & Winds): Philippe Entremont was a popular Columbia recording artist of the time, but his relationship with Stravinsky was exceedingly dicey. The recordings are prime specimens of glossy studio artifice, spliced together from minuscule segments. Stephen Walsh puts it as follows:

He had been booked to record the Capriccio with the French pianist Philippe Entremont at the start of January [1966]. Then he suddenly remembered that when he and Entremont had recorded the Piano Concerto in New York eighteen months before, the sessions had been marked by aggravation and ill feeling; so this time he simply stayed away, and left Craft to conduct in his stead. This presented Columbia with a problem which, not altogether surprisingly, they decided to get round by simply ignoring it and crediting Stravinsky in any case. But the composer would have none of it, "not only because it is extremely dangerous to pretend that I conducted the Capriccio but also because I don't want it." He even objected to a photograph of himself with Entremont being used on the record sleeve, as if, he added, the two of them had ever made much music together. "The photograph with [Isaac] Stern was bad enough, as he never played the [Violin] Concerto before or since recording it and he had hardly done me the respect of learning it then." But at least he and the great violinist had "made music" together.


Left: Entremont recordings sans chummy picture; Right: with Isaac Stern

  • The Mass: recorded in 1960 in Hollywood with the Gregg Smith Singers, and the West Coast Columbia brass and wind players, this one should have been be quite fine, but is marred unfortunately by poor instrumental playing. The chorus acquits itself beautifully, however. Incidentally, this is not to be confused with a Mass recorded in 1967 by Craft in a general atmosphere of bad feeling between Stravinsky and Columbia; that one isn't on the set.

So, speaking of:

Robert Craft

It is no secret that Robert Craft prepared quite a number of the recordings; later in the series he was increasingly credited as the conductor. Craft's involvement with Stravinsky's concert and recording appearances remains a touchy subject for some.

Biographer Stephen Walsh, most indubitably not a Craft fan, described the later years of the Stravinsky recordings:

Stravinsky was less and less capable of conducting music for which the orchestra seriously needed a conductor, and even in the recording studio it was becoming harder and harder to piece together whole performances from the fragmentary takes which often were the best he could manage. That August he stumbled through the Variations [Albert Huxley in memoriam], but none of the takes could be used, and even Columbia never claimed that the published recording was by him. With simpler works like The Fairy's Kiss and Pulcinella...useable takes by Stravinsky might be spliced together with "rehearsal" takes by Craft. But this was a more intricate task than might appear. In the rehearsal sessions, Craft would adopt his own speeds, which increasingly tended to be quicker than those of Stravinsky, who would then irritably refuse to adjust his own to match his assistant's. At the first Pulcinella sessions [1965]...Stravinsky duly adopted even slower tempi than usual, while Craft stood beside him trying desperately to indicate a faster beat to the orchestra. Unsurprisingly there was confusion...

Craft puts it this way:

What was my role in bringing the legacy of the "complete Stravinsky" to fruition? The full story would require a lengthy dissertation. I can only say here that I rehearsed for Stravinsky almost all of the pieces that he recorded. Of course, I followed his style of articulation, his phrasing, and much else. But he also followed me, particularly in the performance of new works. He sat in the control room, studied my gestures, my beating patterns and especially my tempos.

It should be noted that hyperbolic statements one hears to the effect that "Craft conducted all of the Stravinsky recordings" are not substantiated. In fact, Walsh's quote re Craft's involvement makes it clear that Stravinsky was very much in charge of his own recordings, for better or worse -- those fragmentary takes, and so forth. Furthermore, the 22-CD set includes a number of rehearsal recordings in which we can hear Stravinsky working with the orchestra. So while Craft played a very significant role in the Stravinsky recordings, he was not wholly responsible for them, no matter what you might hear.

That said, the final CD is devoted to those recordings which are by Craft, "under the supervision of the composer", who may well have been represented only by his wife Vera being in the studio that day. In the midst of a number of nearly-forgotten works, such as the Epitaphium and Double Canon comes Craft's recording of Stravinsky's last major work, the Requiem Canticles.

The Last LP

To the best of my knowledge, the final LP in the original series was M 39579 "Stravinsky Conducts Music for Chamber and Jazz Ensembles", released by Columbia in 1971. This includes a fine performance of the Ebony Concerto with Benny Goodman recorded in 1965, and some oddball pieces such as the Preludium for Jazz Band and the Tango.

But in a magical moment of serendipity, it also includes a 1961 rendition of the epochal Octet, considered by many to be among the most critically influential compositions of the 20th century. Thus the album inadvertently provided a fitting conclusion to one of the great recording projects in gramophone history.