Sunday, August 26, 2007

Annals of technology: 22 CDs' worth of Stravinsky by Stravinsky for under $2 a disk if you shop right; plus a hybrid (1961+1967+2005) "Soldier's Tale"


"It is all changed," Stravinsky was told, and "indeed it was."

It's the story I always think of when I think of Igor Stravinsky. As the composer told it, it displayed not just his prickly "don't mess with me" side, but also his waspish sense of humor.

He was recalling, 20 years after the fact, his "participation" in Walt Disney's Fantasia, a segment of which was bult around his revolutionary score for Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). It's well-known that the 1913 Paris premiere of Le Sacre, by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, precipitated a full-fledged riot. It's also well-established that Stravinsky's shockingly brutal yet rivetingly beautiful score changed the course of 20th-century Western music.

Most observers thought it was pretty radical of Disney and his musical advisers to fix on Stravinsky's score (even today it remains startling, or should), which after all dramatized the sacrifice of a virgin to pagan gods. Disney and his people somehow got the idea that the music provided a fitting sonic image for the birth of the universe, and the formation of the earth, and eventually the dawn of tyrannosaurus rex. (Here you can see some of the dinosaurs romping.)

Now, Fantasia had some legitimate classical bona fides, starting with the enthusiastic participation of conductor Leopold Stokowski, who recorded the musical selections with his Philadelphia Orchestra in a revolutionary new (for 1939!) multichannel format.

Stravinsky told the story of his involvement with Fantasia in the course of his recorded "Apropos of Le Sacre," included as a single-sided bonus LP in Columbia Masterworks' lavish Stravinsky Conducts 1960 box, which contained brand-new recordings of Le Sacre and the ballet he wrote just before it, Petrushka (1911).

[No, I didn't transcribe Stravinsky's talk myself. I just typed it from the printed version that was included among the tiny-type but nevertheless extensive liner notes that accompanied one of the great record releases of all time: Columbia Masterworks' reissue, in a bargain-priced box (three LPs for the price of two), of the 1960 Petrushka and Sacre along with Stravinsky's 1961 recording of the complete Firebird (1910)--the three great ballets written in collaboration with Diaghilev which defined and propelled Stravinsky's international career. (Generous Columbia followed this up with another indispensable box, also three LPs for the price of two, containing the ballets Apollo and Orpheus and the complete Fairy's Kiss and Pulcinella.)

[Here is Stravinsky at 82 conducting London's New Philharmonia Orchestra in the "Lullaby"--with the famous bassoon solo--and rousing "Final Hymn" that conclude the Firebird Suite.]

Anyway, here is Stravinsky telling the story:
In 1937 or 1938 I received a request from the Disney office in America for permission to use Le Sacre in a cartoon film. The request was accompanied by a gentle warning that if permission were withheld the music would be used anyway. (Le Sacre, being "Russian," was not copyrighted in the United States), but as the owners of the film wished to show it abroad (i.e., in Berne Copyright countries) they offered me $5,000, a sum I was obliged to accept (though, in fact, the "percentages" of a dozen crapulous intermediaries reduced it to $1,200).

I saw the film with George Balanchine in a Hollywood studio at Christmastime 1939. I remember someone offering me a score, and, when I said I had my own, the someone saying "But it is all changed."

It was indeed. The order of the pieces had been shuffled and the most difficult of them eliminated--though this didn't help the musical performance, which was execrable. I will say nothing about the visual complement (for I do not wish to criticize an unresisting imbecility), but the musical point of view of the film involved a dangerous misunderstanding.

So tell us, Igor, and don't pull any punches, how'd you like Fantasia?

I really want to talk about Stravinsky one of these days, and I plan to get to it really soon. Awhile back I startled Howie by saying that we've already had the last three great composers we're ever going to have--Stravinsky (1882-1971), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), all now long since safely dead and buried. This seems so obvious to me now that I forget how stark it may sound to others. But these are the last composers who seem to me, through the sheer force of their imagination, to have transcended the exhaustion of the musical language they inherited, or could scrounge up or invent.

I didn't really mean to get into this just now, but in this connection I can't resist throwing in the concluding paragraph of Stravinsky's "Apropos of Le Sacre" talk:
I was guided by no system whatever in Le Sacre du printemps. When I think of the music of the other composers of that time who interest me--Berg's music, which is synthetic (in the best sense), and Webern's, which is analytic--how much more theoretical it seems than Le Sacre. And these composers belonged to and were supported by a great tradition. Very little immediate tradition lies behind Le Sacre du printemps, and no theory. I had only my ear to help me; I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed.

At the time of this "Apropos," Le Sacre was nearly 50 years old. Stravinsky was still composing actively, and continued to do so more or less up to his death. Over those six decades of composing, he wound up working in an astonishing range of styles and musical languages, but mostly he used the sheer force of his imagination to squeeze every drop he could out of those musical languages available to him.

One of the remarkable aspects of Stravinsky's career is the extensive recorded documentation we have of it. The composer was from fairly early times an active performer of his own music, and began making recordings early on. But the intensive, near-encyclopedic recorded documentation of his works eventually undertaken by Columbia Masterworks was without precedent. It was almost entirely the initiative of the remarkably urbane, deeply cultured man who once upon a time actually ran Columbia Records, Goddard Lieberson [pictured above]. Lieberson also committed the company to extensive recorded documentation of the fine American composer Aaron Copland. (How times have changed!)

In the notes for the Stravinsky Conducts 1960 box, Lieberson himself explained the gap that Stravinsky's recorded "Apropos of Le Sacre" was designed to plug. He paid tribute to the published conversations the composer was then producing with his "valued associate," Robert Craft, which "give us a glimpse of his brilliant, urbane, cultured mind." "Unfortunately," he added,
they do not provide our ears with the wonderful Stravinsky-geneticized language which he has put together out of French, German, English, and Russian-with-immediate-translations. (With French and German, Stravinsky hurtles forward and is imperturbably and aloofly unconcerned with his auditors' linguistic accomplishments, while for a Russian phrase he will provide an English translation as quickly as a U.N. translator.) That, too, we have tried to remedy with the enclosed record of Stravinsky speaking about Le Sacre du printemps.

Columbia/CBS Masterworks and its corporate heir, Sony Classical, have done commendable work gathering the Stravinsky recorded legacy, first on LP and then on CD. Not much incentive was offered to the nonspecialist music lover, though. Now, the current heir to the whole of the catalogs of both Columbia/CBS Masterworks and RCA Victor Red Seal, Sony BMG Masterworks, is importing a 22-CD set produced by German Sony, at a staggeringly low price--the list is $45.98! (I paid $37 for mine, including shipping, but I've noticed the price inching upward.)

At this price, of course, it's unreasonable to expect much in the way of liner notes, a real limitation in the case of the many vocal works included, hard to appreciate fully without printed texts--and also for the many less-known works that become easy to explore in this incredibly handy collection. Well, I would think that anyone who's found his/her way to DWT has the "search" skills to dig up the necessary material online.

Even in the most famous Stravinsky works, which naturally have received vast numbers of recordings, including a fair number of extremely good ones, the composer's own recordings remain, in almost all cases, not only fully competitive, but in some ways the best place for the newcomer to the music to start. Even though I already had a lot of this stuff on LP, I made a point of buying CD editions of the ageless 1960 Stravinsky Petrushka and Le Sacre (conveniently coupled on a CD, which I endorse without reservation to anyone who isn't thinking of buying the set) and Stravinsky's 1964 stereo remake of his only full-length opera, the satirically biting yet also heart-hurting Rake's Progress.

If I could point to one thing about Stravinsky's own performances, it would be rhythm, his unmatched from-the-inside feel for the way the music moves. And if I could offer you a sound clip [maybe someone out there can suggest how I might do that?--K.], I might start with the orchestral fanfare that doesn't so much open as launch The Rake, which has a propulsive, infectious vitality I've never heard anyone else duplicate.

Or I might offer the opening "Soldier's March" from one of my very favorite Stravinsky recordings, the Suite from L'Histoire du soldat (The Soldier's Tale). L'Histoire, written in Switzerland during World War I (1918), is a work of no definable genre. It's a play-with-music in which, as Robert Craft once put it, the music "is the play." It's the shaggiest of shaggy-dog tales, which begins with a violin-playing soldier, en route home to his village on leave, unknowingly selling his soul to the Devil. The amazingly pungent and biting yet often haunting music is scored for the odd, what-he-had-on-hand septet of violin, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, double bass, and percussion.

In February 1961 Columbia assembled seven top-notch players drawn from the unique assortment of musical backgrounds you find in the Los Angeles area, to be the "Columbia Chamber Ensemble" for a composer-conducted recording of the Suite from L'Histoire. With most of the finished product apparently drawn from the final day of recording (it was, it seems, an amazing session), they produced magic. The vivid instrumental textures are so gloriously reproduced that for a long time I made this 1961 L'Histoire Suite a part of my standard "test kit" when I wanted to get an impression of unfamiliar audio equipment.

What hardly anybody seems to have known until a couple of years ago was that in 1967 a new "Columbia Chamber Ensemble," featuring four of the 1961 players including the outstanding violinist Israel Baker, was assembled to record the tiny bits of connective music, adding up to a mere four minutes, needed to produce a complete recording of L'Histoire. (A certain amount of the spoken portion of the play takes place over the musical movements familiar from the suite.)

Nothing more was done with this material, though. It's suggested that the composer himself didn't have any burning desire to produce a complete recording of L'Histoire, perhaps because of a falling out at some point with the librettist, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz.

But, as we learn from William Wernick--executive producer of Sony's "new" complete L'Histoire conducted by the composer [pictured above], 36 years after his death!--once he discovered that the 1967 session took place, since he had a job number to apply to a search, the session tapes were soon found, intact! "All the takes were there," he writes, "and not only that, they were superb both in quality and performance."

The 1961 and 1967 tapes were edited and assembled, leaving just the question of the spoken portion of the play.
By coincidence, we discovered that Academy Award-winnning actor Jeremy Irons had performed The Soldier's Tale at the Old Vic in 2004 in a new English adaptation by the noted writer Jeremy Sams.
Irons agreed to undertake this improbable "collaboration" with the long-departed composer (the now-veteran actor was 22 when Stravinsky died) and the two-headed Columbia Chamber Ensemble. His part, recorded in London in 2005, was duly edited into the hybrid 1961/1967 music tape. You might think the result would be a hopeless hodge-podge. In fact, it sounds to me like the recording of L'Histoire we've been waiting for all these years.

There's no question that Irons is a splendid actor, but a lot of brilliant actors have fallen into the trap of turning L'Histoire into cloying sing-song silliness, and Irons himself is prone to a number of actorish mannerisms that might have been fatal here. Nothing of the sort happened, I'm delighted to report. Performing the entire play as narration--rather than sharing the action with separate actors for the Soldier and the Devil, as is more commonly done--Irons does a simply glorious job, thanks in no small part to the wonder of Sams's English version, which plays better than I've ever heard even the original French text, let alone any other English version.

So, a humble "well done" to everyone involved in this unusual production, which includes exemplary background notes, not least regarding the 1961 recording sessions that are still the heart of this project. A "not so well done" to whoever thought that tacking on the 1966 Robert Craft-conducted Symphonies of Wind Instruments added something to the disk. It's worth having, no doubt, and the piece was written within several years of L'Histoire, but surely some more meaningful filler could have been found?

And a "pathetically badly done" to the Sony BMG Masterworks people who are the embarrassing current guardians of the immense Masterworks and Red Seal legacies. When I went looking online for a photo of the new L'Histoire package, I easily enough found a Sony BMG Masterworks home page with a row of "FEATURE RELEASES" including this one, with a thumbnail photo that gave every evidence of being a link. So I clicked on it, expecting to be taken to a page where the recording was presented/promoted with justified pride.

Instead I landed on a "Sony Music Store" page proclaiming, "Search (no products found)," with the additional information: "Sorry no match available. This is not a Sony Music product. Please select another product."

I can think of several things to say, but for once I'm not going to say any of them.

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At 6:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a marvelous post. Thank you so much. I come here for the politics and Howie's righteous rants, but this delightful and unexpected little jewel will have me off to the record store/

At 6:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love keninny's music posts.

First comment I ever made at DWT was in response to one about new recording of Beethoven string quartets.


At 8:41 PM, Blogger John Emerson said...

Stravinsky was quite the bitch. Musorgsky, Satie, and Debussy were his tradition, but he didn't mention them a lot. He also avoided mentioning Bartok or Janacek as much as possible.

Still a great composer. But a bitch.

Of Living composers, I think that Penderecki is great, and maybe Part. But I think that classical is history, almost.

At 4:18 AM, Blogger Hunter said...

Wonderful post -- I am going to be amazoning for this one. The Soldier's Tale especially sounds great.

I'm not so sure we've seen the last of the "great" composers. There may be a hiatus (this doesn't seem to be an age that supports greatness), but I'm not even sure of that.

At any rate, well done, and thanks.

At 10:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Here is Stokowski..." - You meant Stravinski, right?

At 11:12 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

My goodness gracious, me, of course that video link should have been presented as "Here is Stravinsky"! Yikes!

The dopey mistake is made worse by the fact that there could well be video of Stoky conducting the Firebird Suite--a longtime specialty of his--at 82. He was not only still alive and kicking at that age, but probably still had never seen a camera he didn't try to hog.

I don'r recall ever noticing that Stokowski and Stravinsky were born a mere two months apart in 1882 (Stoky, April 18; Stravinsky, June 17). And while Stravinsky concluded his long run a couple of months short of his 89th birthday (in April 1971), Stokowski lived on almost another six and a half years (till September 1977)!

Sorry about that, and thanks so much for catching it! (Note to all: I've corrected this, so you don't have to go looking for it.)

Thanks too to all the commenters, and I'm sure the Penderecki and Part families are especially grateful to John for his support. (Me, I can't think of any reason for ever listening to another note either of them has written.)

We'll be coming back to Stravinsky soon. As I indicated, this isn't really the piece I was meaning to write about him; it just sort of "clears the way" for it. I will certainly have more to say--and perhaps even explain better--my bald claim that Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Britten will remain our last three great composers. Which means, naturally, that I'm looking forward to devoting some attention to both Shostakovich and Britten as well. Their music I can't imagine ever wanting to be without.


At 12:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"there could well be video of Stoky conducting the Firebird Suite"

I didn't know, but I suspected there might have been, since they were so close in age.

I'm not familiar with Penderecki or Part. I'll have to check them out, just to see for myself.

At 12:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

gotta change my handle...

At 1:05 PM, Blogger Siun said...


What a treat of a post ... thank you.

More please!

At 2:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! And while I do agree with you that we will not seee the likes of Shostakovich, Britten, and Stravinsky ever again, there are some amazing composers who probably should be held in the same regard who have recently passed on, like Alfred Schnittke, Allan Pettersson, Witold Lutoslawski, Georgy Ligeti and Robert Simpson, and some who are still around, like Elliott Carter, Valentin Silvestrov, Hans Warner Henze, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Tristan Murail.


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