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Stravinsky: Orpheus, Jeu De Cartes, Agon / Volkov, Bbc Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Release Date: 09/08/2009 
Label:  Hyperion   Catalog #: 67698   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Igor Stravinsky
Conductor:  Ilan Volkov
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 12 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

STRAVINSKY Jeu de cartes. Orpheus. Agon • Ilan Volkov, cond; BBC Scottish SO • HYPERION 67698 (72: 45)

These are refreshingly fleet-footed accounts of three very different ballet scores. Jeu de cartes—begun in the last days of 1935, finished in the course of the next year, and first staged in 1937, by Balanchine, with Lincoln Kirstein’s American Ballet—is Stravinsky at his most full-bloodedly neo-Classical, if that doesn’t sound like a contradiction in terms. Some readings take the stylistic label as an excuse for tip-toed caution, but Volkov is having none of that; indeed, his tempos are sometimes startlingly swift, yet the speed does not entail any loss of power or weight—the two come together to generate that rare thing in
Read more Stravinsky (and, indeed, in ballet in general), momentum. So, far from treating Jeu de cartes as the genteel town cousin of that barbaric country cousin The Rite of Spring, Volkov makes clear their close consanguinity, finding a charge of energy in the later score that often escapes attention. Part of the reason for his success is the surefooted playing: although his orchestra is capable of chamber-musical textural transparency, it remains a symphonic ensemble and can rise to pack a solid punch when required.

For some reason Orpheus (1946) has been programmed in third place here, upsetting the view of stylistic evolution that would otherwise have been on display. Stephen Walsh’s lucid booklet note contains a sentence that leaves a lot unsaid: “Even the pas d’action in which the Bacchantes tear Orpheus to pieces is truly violent only for a few bars, which must have seemed a very strange turn of style for the composer of The Rite of Spring.” I’m sure he wasn’t trying to say that the rest of the score can overstay its welcome, but I find it does: at half-an hour in length, it lacks the concision and punch of its partners on this disc, with the surface angularity disguising just how sentimental, almost mawkish, the music really is. Volkov and his Scots keep it moving, and the recording captures plenty of detail, but those few bars of violence at the end come as an overdue release of the kind of energy that animates the best of Stravinsky’s scores.

Agon, the composition of which spanned the mid 1950s, manages to face several directions at once. Its mock-Renaissance flavor sits like a mask on the face of a score that is, not far below the surface, astringent and tough. I have to confess that I find the works born of Stravinsky’s adoption of serialism in his old age—a stylistic volte-face which cost him not a scintilla of personality—generally more satisfying than many of the works that, bit by bit, brought him there: there’s a novel clarity and security of manner, as if the early scores were the caterpillar, the neo-Classical scores the pupa, and the serial scores the butterfly to which the previous forms had been aspiring. Agon doesn’t go the whole hog of Threni; rather, you can hear Stravinsky scuffing his feet on the serial doormat while he thinks whether to cross the threshold. What Volkov manages to do here is look behind the mask, to hint at the violence not far below the surface, to point at just how cold and cruel a heart beats in the background.

Oddly enough, there isn’t any direct competition for this particular packaging of ballets. The program that comes closest is Robert Craft’s Naxos disc of Agon and Orpheus with Apollo (8.557502), itself a reissue and now re-released as part of a six-disc set of all the Stravinsky ballets. James H. North gave the set a mixed review in 33:1, commending the performances but regretting a loss of detail in the “reverberant” Naxos sound. Volkov’s tempos are at least as crisp as Craft’s, and he also benefits from a clearer acoustic. In short, then, these performances are about as good as you will hear in a long time. The interpretations both satisfy the intellect and pack a physical punch; the playing is meticulously detailed without losing any of the outdoor energy the music requires; and the recording likewise both reflects the minutiae of the scoring and captures the wild sweep of its meatier moments. A resounding success.

FANFARE: Martin Anderson

This is such refreshing music, and a fine collection of Stravinsky ballets. Jeu de cartes is one of his funniest scores, and it gets a punchy, rambunctious performance here. Ilan Volkov and his team clearly relish the work's sly humor, its Rossini quotations, and other "naughty bits". Agon's angular rhythms and odd instrumental combinations give the orchestra few problems. The harp and mandolin are particularly well balanced, while the brass fanfares at the beginning and end cut through the texture nicely without becoming too brash. Orpheus is gorgeous. Volkov adopts a slightly more relaxed basic tempo than, say, Craft, but in the few eruptive moments, such as the Dance of the Furies, he finds plenty of power and rhythmic edge. Excellent sonics complete this wholly attractive picture. Strongly recommended.

--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com

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Works on This Recording

Jeu de cartes by Igor Stravinsky
Conductor:  Ilan Volkov
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1937; France 
Agon by Igor Stravinsky
Conductor:  Ilan Volkov
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1957; USA 
Orpheus by Igor Stravinsky
Conductor:  Ilan Volkov
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1947; USA 

Featured Sound Samples

Jeu de cartes: Deal no 3

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