Stravinsky - COE - MusicWeb International

Stravinsky-lite, these are two of the pieces among those schlepped around the United States by the composer while on tour in the 1930s, avoiding controversy by leaving later and more difficult works firmly hidden from the programmes. Delightful they both are however, and deservedly successful in the record catalogues.

I'm not much of a one to go picking at scores and putting on my metronome to find out what's going on, but in this case I felt some technological back-up was required having been somewhat surprised by the sluggish pace with which Alexander Janiczek sets off on his Apollon Musagète. While it seems most recordings are in fact brisker than the quarter note/crotchet = 54 which is marked in the score, it is rare indeed to find someone actually under this marking. The tempo in this recording moves about a bit, but is more like crotchet = 50 in places, which may not seem like much, but does drag somewhat when compared to more common performance practice. Stravinsky's own 1964 Columbia recording clocks in at 4:30 in this opening movement, Janiczek 5:07. I've also been comparing this new recording with a few old favourites, such as that in the revised 1947 ‘Apollo' version with Yuri Bashmet, and Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Stockholm Chamber Orchestra on Sony SK 46 667. Having become a bit more used to the opening and connecting it to the performance as a whole, Janiczek's adherence to the metronome markings works out well enough, generally making for a more relaxed and spacious reading than we have become used to. This is true of the Pas d'action third movement for instance, which Stravinsky again takes at a brisker pace than his own metronome marking. The rich acoustic of the Église Maronite Notre-Dame du Liban in Paris does seem to lend itself to a more open approach, reminding me of that Nimbus CD of the English Chamber Orchestra with William Boughton, coupling Apollon Musagète with Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra, a recording which is somehow quite moreish, but goes too far in the direction of acoustic swampiness. The acoustic in this new recording is very airy, but the players are treated to fairly close microphone placement and there is plenty of clarity in the recording. The clean beauty of the playing is in fact what rescues this performance from becoming too pedestrian, with gorgeous depth to the massed string sound, decent level for the basses, and some ravishing violin solos. I would have preferred a bit more bite to the accents and dynamics, but this is a point of taste rather than interpretation - everything is there, just that other performances emphasise such details more. The muted Pas de deux is very lovely; indeed almost too lovely, with the melodic definition being somewhat lost in a Mantovani-esque curtain of strings. We are rescued by a punchy Apothéose, but this remains an Apollon Musagète for relaxing with in an idealised steamy bath rather than having the imagination set on fire with ancient Greeks running around in naked abandon.

On to Pulcinella, and references such as that of Robert Craft on Naxos. Once again I was setting my metronome and finding Alexander Janiczek slightly under the tempo indicated in the opening movement and elsewhere, although closer to Stravinsky's own 1965 Columbia recording which is also fairly measured in its pacing. Even with genuinely gorgeous playing, the lilting beauty of the Serenata is robbed of its flow and becomes rather too static to my ears, even while freed from not having to cope with the breathing limitations of a vocal soloist. The fast movements are taken in refined tumult however, and show off the technical virtuosity of the COE in fine style, winds and strings alike. The romp which is the Toccata has some fine brass playing and closes with a delightfully witty trombone parp. Sublime oboe playing is to be found in the Gavotta, and compliments go to all for faultless phrasing and intonation everywhere. The penultimate Menuetto is another heavily indulgent tempo, more ?=72 rather than the ?=88 which is marked, but all is forgiven with a Finale which ‘swingt de pan uit' as they say in Aalst-Waalre - with terrific energy and sheer Hollywood schmaltz in places, revealing Stravinsky as the showman he could be at times.

With a fine, demonstration quality SACD recording set in a richly resonant but relatively non-intrusive acoustic, this is a disc to revel in on a sonic level. The quality of the playing is also superlative. Critical observations with regard to some aspects of the interpretation mean this won't be my own definitive desert-island choice, but this disc has an overwhelming majority of redeeming features which make it worth having if hi-fi definition and world class musicianship is what you are looking for. Alexander Janiczek is of course not only the orchestral director, but also solo violinist in these performances, adding plenty of zip and sparkle - the finishing touch to a luxuriant and fairly romantic sounding feast of easy-going and youthfully buoyant Stravinsky.

MusicWeb International
06 January 2010