Notes and Editorial Reviews
A highly important and desirable release.
Stravinsky's first appearance as a conductor was in 1923, when he directed the premiere of his Octet. He had made a number of piano rolls in the early 1920s, but when electric recording arrived he came to realize that the gramophone was an ideal medium through which he could show other performers how he wanted his music to be played. In 1928 he signed a six-year contract with Columbia which allowed him to record 12 sides per year. ''Everyone who listens to my records,'' he later wrote in 1935, ''hears my music free from any distortion of my thought, at least in its essential elements.''
Columbia naturally wanted him to record the three great early ballets first of all, but his lack of experience is obvious in 1928-9 performances of a suite from The Firebird, an abbreviated Petrushka and a somewhat shaky Rite of Spring. These interpretations naturally have points of interest, and dedicated Stravinsky-ites could have heard them at one time on Pearl (1/92—nla), but EMI have sensibly excluded them from their new set. By 1931, when he recorded the Symphony of Psalms, Stravinsky had somehow come of age as a conductor. Sessions for this work took place just three months after Ansermet had conducted the premiere, and the performance has that special vitality which comes from the experience of something new and exciting. The Franco-Russian chorus sings with extraordinary fervour, and it is particularly interesting to hear Stravinsky take the quiet final section of the work more quickly than he did in later performances.
The Octet was recorded in May 1932, and in a spirited, vivacious account we can hear the very distinct pre-war French wind timbre which will have been in the composer's mind when he wrote the piece just nine years earlier. In July 1934 he paid a visit to London's Abbey Road studios and recorded an English version of Les noces. Joe Batten was the producer, and in his autobiography (Rockcliff: 1956) he wrote with amusing candour about his antipathy to this 'peculiar' modern work. The sessions were a great success, however, and if Roy Henderson in particular sounds strangely old- fashioned in style, all the singing and playing are very good, and Stravinsky directs a strong, sharply rhythmic performance. It's only a pity that the balance is poor, with pianos and percussion well behind the singers.
Stravinsky directs piquant versions of the short Pastorale and Rag-time, and the remaining items feature him as a pianist (he had played in public since 1922). These show that he was a capable player, but not a virtuoso, like Bartok or Prokofiev. Of particular note is his style, which is much less percussive than that of many later interpreters. In the Concerto for Two Pianos he and his son Soulima play the work in a fairly restrained fashion, almost as if it were Bach or Mozart. The same is true of the solo Serenade, and only in the Piano-rag-music does Stravinsky show a little more abandon.
In 1931 he met the violinist Samuel Duskin, and the two men achieved an immediate artistic rapport. They undertook concert tours for several years, and in 1932 Stravinsky wrote the Duo concertant for he and Dushkin to play. In their 1933 recording they perform the quicker movements in a fairly straightforward fashion, but in ''Eclogue II'' and the final ''Dithyrambe'' Dushkin finds much more expression, with even a touch of portamento here and there. For their recitals the two men also made a number of joint transcriptions from Stravinsky's orchestral works, which are remarkably faithful to the originals. Dushkin plays these pretty well, but he was not by any means a great violinist.
Stravinsky's only concerto recording was of the Capriccio. This was made in May 1930, just a few months after he had given the first performance, also with Ansermet as conductor. Here, alas, the orchestra sounds on top of the microphones in a dry-as-dust acoustic, while the piano is somewhat in the background and lacks tonal definition. Some effort is needed by the listener to get the most out of a performance which again finds Stravinsky playing attractively, but well within the dynamic range of his instrument.
No other item in the set poses any aural problems. I have known most of the original 78s for many years, and can only marvel at the quality achieved by transfer engineer Andrew Walter. Almost everything sounds clearer, fresher and more up to date. This highly important and desirable issue is also adorned by Hugh Wood's notes, which meet the case perfectly.
-- Gramophone [5/1993]