February 2016

Arts & Letters

The last of his kind

By Andrew Ford

Igor Stravinsky, 1929. © Boris Lipnitzki / Roger Viollet / Getty Images

Stravinsky’s works, collected

Modern composers are no longer famous the way Igor Stravinsky once was. From our century, indeed, it is hard to comprehend the extent of that fame. Just as Picasso was modern art, so Stravinsky was modern music. Like Picasso, Stravinsky lived a long life (they were born a year apart in the 1880s, and died two years apart in the 1970s), and his large body of work falls neatly into periods that reflect the aesthetic priorities of his time. Post-Romantic primitivism, cool neoclassicism, hieratic serialism: of course in no small part Stravinsky created those priorities himself.

But there’s even more to Stravinsky’s fame. Richard Taruskin, the author of a two-volume, 1750-page study of Stravinsky’s music, spells it out when he writes that since the Russian composer’s death there have been great composers who appealed to connoisseurs, critics and academics (he names Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio) and great composers with a strong popular following (Benjamin Britten, Dmitri Shostakovich, Aaron Copland), but none with equal appeal to both constituencies. Stravinsky was “the last of his kind”.

Taruskin makes this point in an essay penned to accompany the Deutsche Grammophon (DG) release of the Stravinsky Complete Edition, consisting of 30 CDs in a handsome cardboard cube. In fact, it’s not quite complete, and neither is it exactly an edition, if by that term we are to infer that DG had a plan and followed it through. The Berlin-based label started with a plan, it’s true, and it involved Pierre Boulez (who died in January) and Oliver Knussen, both Stravinsky specialists and the finest composer-conductors of their age. In the 1990s they got to work on Stravinsky’s orchestral scores, but at some point it became financially burdensome for a major company to record the music of even the 20th century’s most famous composer, and the plan was shelved. The DG box set gathers up most of what Boulez and Knussen achieved, and pads out the “edition” with older recordings by the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Claudio Abbado. Recordings from other labels fill the remaining gaps. The performances are all of the highest standard and in vivid sound, but, still, one is left wishing for Boulez’s Les noces and Knussen’s Threni.

That DG’s project foundered is a sign of our times, and how different they are to Stravinsky’s. Part of the reason for the composer’s fame was that he was the first major composer to document his music in the studio, his career running parallel to the major developments in recording technology. Stravinsky had a good business brain – honed, no doubt, by the loss of earnings that came with the freezing of his Russian royalties after the 1917 revolution. (He remained a staunch anti-communist.) To fill the coffers, old pieces were regularly revised, their copyrights renewed in the process; publishing contracts were signed (though the books, we now know, were ghostwritten). As a European exile in Hollywood he tried hard to get work in the movies, but like his near neighbour and arch rival Arnold Schoenberg, he failed. Stravinsky’s orchestral Ode contains music written for Robert Stevenson’s 1943 film Jane Eyre (starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine); 20th Century Fox instead engaged Bernard Herrmann to write the score. Even at the end of his life, by which point he had no financial worries, Stravinsky would pay for groceries by cheque, knowing that half the time the signed slip of paper would be framed rather than cashed. His attachment to celebrity was in proportion to his protestations to the contrary, but it was driven by a need for money as much as a desire for fame, and early on he realised he could acquire both from performing and recording.

Shellac, vinyl, mono, stereo: Stravinsky recorded in all these formats, committing many of his works to tape twice. As there is no major anniversary for the composer at the moment, it is presumably a coincidence that, just as the Stravinsky Complete Edition appeared late last year, Sony released Igor Stravinsky: The complete Columbia album collection in a yet more handsome box of 56 CDs and one DVD, together with a hardback book that includes another commissioned essay from Richard Taruskin. (The archival nature of the Sony release is underlined by the use of individual cardboard covers that are facsimiles of the original LP jackets.)

Stravinsky was not an especially gifted performer. His conducting was adequate, his piano playing mostly stiff and monochrome. This approach suited the composer’s own piano music, the bulk of which is from among his neoclassical works (some would say these tend to be stiff and monochrome too), but there are also recordings of him playing Mozart in this manner. He seldom conducted music by others, so his time to compose was never likely compromised by a career on the podium, as to varying degrees it was for Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Anton Webern – and, for that matter, Boulez and Knussen. Stravinsky conducted Stravinsky and here, as featured in the Sony collection, he was in his element. Composers who conduct their own music, even if they don’t do it terribly well, are generally cut some slack by orchestras. There may be an absence of cues, the tempo may waver, occasionally there will be an extra beat, but at least you know this conductor is a world authority on what is being played.

Yet if Stravinsky’s stick technique was far from ideal, he had other ways of communicating. Quite simply, Stravinsky embodied his music. You can see it in the famous performance of The Firebird suite at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1965. (It’s on YouTube.) The Firebird, composed some 55 years before, had become the octogenarian composer’s party piece and he toured the world conducting it. Here you see him punching out the rapturous finale with tightly clenched fists, but it is the jerks and twitches from his elbows that convey the seven-in-a-bar metre.

I have spoken to a number of musicians who worked with Stravinsky and they all told of similar experiences. The percussionist James Blades played The Soldier’s Tale for the composer and remembered that while Stravinsky’s hands were sometimes misleading, his body conveyed every syncopation with great accuracy. Blades said it was almost as though Stravinsky was dancing the music. The tenor Gerald English, who sang the title role in Oedipus Rex, told me that he worked out early in rehearsals with Stravinsky that the beat was not reliable, but if he focused on the tip of the composer’s nose he wouldn’t come unstuck.

What you get from the big Sony box, then, is a strong sense of how the music should go. You feel the composer’s imprimatur. Some of the performances are very fine indeed. The early ballet scores – The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring – are excellent, and I don’t believe there has ever been a better recording of Symphony of Psalms. A few of the recordings are excruciating: the out-of-tune singing in Zvezdoliki and Threni reveals choristers not yet at home in the music, and a wobbly, half-speed account of Anthem: The dove descending breaks the air will convince no one. Some of the early mono recordings are better than the stereo remakes, in particular Oedipus Rex with a youthful Peter Pears in the title role and Jean Cocteau speaking his own text.

In contrast, the modern recordings from DG are uniformly good, and that box has its own element of authenticity. Looking to fill out the stalled Complete Edition, DG turned to conductor and musicologist Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s assistant from 1948 to the end of his life. Craft, who died last year at the age of 92, was a vital figure in Stravinsky’s life. He worked closely with the composer on all his later recordings, usually rehearsing the orchestra in advance, occasionally conducting the session itself while Stravinsky supervised. He edited the scores, wrote all the later books and encouraged the composer at a crucial moment in his career when he felt he was no longer relevant. In the 1950s it was Craft, an admirer of the music of the Second Viennese School, who turned Stravinsky into a 12-tone composer. (The conversion had to wait until Schoenberg, the founder of the technique, was dead.) As well as proving that old dogs could learn new tricks, Stravinsky showed that writing 12-tone music didn’t mean compromising passion and individuality.

After Stravinsky’s death, the still-young Craft devoted himself to conducting the music of his former employer as well as that of the Viennese school. He was very much the expert in Stravinsky’s late music – after all, without Craft, the pieces wouldn’t have been written – and was aware of how deficient some of the composer’s own recordings were. So he set about recording everything again, often with revelatory clarity, and it is some of these recordings that feature in the DG box. Craft, then, is the figure that unites the two sets.

The recommendation is straightforward. If you want to get to know Stravinsky’s music, avail yourself of the DG box at once. The performances are superb and so is the digital sound. If you are a serious Stravinskian you will need both the DG and Sony sets. Together they’ll set you back around $520, but you’ll be listening to them for the rest of your life.

Andrew Ford

Andrew Ford is an award-winning composer, writer and broadcaster. His books include The Sound of Pictures: Listening to the Movies from Hitchcock to High Fidelity, In Defence of Classical Music and Earth Dances.

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