Album review: Stravinsky unmatched – the Bernstein recordings boxed by Sony

Commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s passing, Sony Classical has revisited (once again) its vast Columbia and RCA Victor back catalogue, in order to put together a six-disc collection of Leonard Bernstein’s complete Stravinsky recordings; a dazzling arch of albums extending from 1948 all the way to 1977.

There are three orchestras involved, all closely associated with Bernstein. Alongside three discs featuring the Maestro’s own band, the New York Philharmonic, there are notable contributions from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra. From the Stravinsky oeuvre, nine works appear on Bernstein’s recordings, ranging form The Firebird (1910/1919) to the Symphony of Psalms (1930/1948), chronologically speaking, including two renditions of Le Sacre du printemps (1911-13).

In terms of genres, Bernstein’s recordings encompass ballet scores, concerto, ensemble works, music for chorus and orchestra as well as opera-oratorio, all providing intriguing alternatives for Stravinsky’s own Columbia recordings. In similar vein, Bernstein’s readings can be juxtaposed against those conducted by Pierre Boulez. Taken together, these two incredible musicians often represent the opposite ends in their views on Stravinsky; the composer who said his scores are not to be interpreted, but executed.

While Bernstein re-recorded some of his Stravinsky repertoire with the Israel Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon in the course of the eighties, for L’Histoire du Soldat (1918/1920), Octet for Wind Instruments (1922-23), Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923-24/1950), Oedipus Rex (1926-27/1948) and Symphony of Psalms, the recordings featured on the new Sony collection represent Bernstein’s only album forays into the oeuvre.

Opening the collection, the first disc provides us with captivating performances of L’Histoire du Soldat Suite and Octet by the twenty-nine-year-old Bernstein and the members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Recorded for RCA around the same time Stravinsky himself was conducting some of his oeuvre for the label, Bernstein’s performances come off with remarkable freshness and insight, endorsed by the top-class contributions from the Boston players.

Conceived in 1918 by Stravinsky and C. F. Ramuz, L’Histoire du Soldat is a pocket-size masterstroke of music theatre ”to be read, played, and danced”. Scored for a septet featuring clarinet, bassoon, cornet (or trumpet), trombone, percussion, violin and double bass, the music was adapted for concert performance by Stravinsky in 1920. The suite provides somewhat straightforward presentation of the original score, omitting repeated numbers as well as occasional passages (often single bars) here and there.

A fusion of captivating melodies, tricky rhythms, riveting harmonies and up-to-date dance hall tunes, L’Histoire du Soldat is the perfect sounding portrait of its time, with lasting appeal. With Bernstein, the seven Boston Symphony players provide a performance of extraordinary vividness, clad in evocative musical imagery, alight with fine detail.

The B-side in no less convincing. Stravinsky’s brilliant three-movement Octet for Wind Instruments makes great use of an extraordinary ensemble of flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets and two trombones. According to the composer’s notes, the Octet began with a dream.

”I saw myself in a small room surrounded by a small group of instrumentalists playing some attractive music… I awoke from this little concert in a state of delight and anticipation and the next morning began to compose.”

In Stravinsky’s newly-found Neoclassical vein, the opening sinfonia revisits the sonata form, with a wonderful lento introduction paving the way for the uplifting contrapuntal realm of the allegro moderato. An ingenious Tema con variazioni ensues, rooted in astonishing musical imagination. Rounding off the Octet, a tempo giusto Finale with Jazz age syncopations brings the score to its lively close.

As if tailor-made for Bernstein and his Boston players, the RCA Octet is a feast of music-making, beautifully remastered by the Sony team. A recording of exemplary clarity and focus, the first disc is a splendid portrait of not only the composer and the conductor, but the fantastic musicians of the BSO.

Fast-forwarding a decade (or so), Bernstein’s next studio engagements with the Stravinsky oeuvre take us to the realm of the Ballets Russes. Recorded with the New York Philharmonic for Columbia, the performances of The Firebird Suite and Le Sacre du printemps are coupled together on the second disc. Originally issued separately on two albums, The Firebird Suite was initially coupled with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet on the 1957 LP, whereas Sacre was released as a standalone item in 1958.

Since its 1910 premiere, Stravinsky’s music for The Firebird has appeared in many guises in the concert hall and on record. Out of his original ballet score, the composer devised three suites, in 1911, 1919 and 1945, respectively, providing strikingly different perspectives into the same music. Cast in four movements, the 1911 suite retained original orchestration and concluded with the Infernal Dance, whereas Stravinsky’s 1945 edition was essentially a reworking of the complete score into a more structurally coherent, albeit less adventurous guise.

The 1919 suite championed by Bernstein (and many others), presents the main musical numbers from the ballet in downscaled orchestration for duple winds and brass. Following the revival of the complete score in concert performances from the early sixties onwards, including those legendary ones conducted by the composer, the 1919 suite has become somewhat less frequently performed and recorded affair.

While no match to the original ballet score, the 1919 suite has its merits, especially in an enthusiastic performance like the one by Bernstein and the NY Phil. Recorded at the St. George Hotel, Brooklyn, The Firebird Suite is shrouded in glowing hue and ever-articulate rhythms. Magically emanating from silence, the whispering Introduction sets the music in spellbinding motion, followed by The variation of the Firebird and Dance.

The Princesses Round’ and The Infernal Dance present us with splendid contrasts; one enchantingly graceful, the other fierce. The highlight of the performance comes with the intense musical magic of Lullaby, paving the way for the cathartic Finale and its soaring hymn.

The two recordings of Le Sacre du printemps constitute epicentre of Bernstein’s Stravinsky. Wrapped in striking album covers each, Bernstein’s 1958 New York and 1972 London takes are fascinatingly different in their mastery over Stravinsky’s score of peerless originality.

Speaking of scores, Bernstein’s conducting score of Sacre, often left unopened by the Maestro in a live performance, had come down to him from his mentor Serge Koussevitzky. As is well known, Koussevitzky had asked Nicolas Slonimsky to rebar the Danse sacrale to gain a better match between the musical text and his intuition. For Bernstein, these amendments were hardly mandatory; instead, he kept to the score out of affection to his great mentor and friend.

When hearing the test pressing of Bernstein’s NY Phil recording, Stravinsky himself reportedly responded to it with a resounding ”wow!”Captured in a single session at the St. George Hotel on Monday 20 January 1958, the performance remains among the most electrifying readings Sacre ever committed to disc. It is also markedly different from Stravinsky’s own 1959 recording, his final studio take on the score.

While Stravinsky himself was moving away from the wild rapture of his original writing, Bernstein wholeheartedly endorsed it. His Sacre is both a primordial rite of untamed earthiness as well as a an astounding devise of musical intellect, rooted in rhythmic vigour and sonic splendour.

Instead of resorting to a fully-fledged analysis of the 1958 performance, perhaps it is sufficient to focus on a few select observations. First of all, there is the invigorating presence captured by the recording. Stravinsky’s textures are sounded out with tangible commitment and devotion. The enthralling anticipation inherent in the nocturnal Introduction of the Second Part is without peer in the Sacre discography and the roaring burst to Dance of the Earth concluding the First Part comes off with unparalleled orchestral energy.

In the midst of the riot-of-a-performance, each page turn and even a pencil drop caught by the microphones serve as an inspiring reminder of the living and breathing musicians behind the otherworldly reading. Culminating in the earth-shaking Dance sacrale, the brilliantly remastered recording is one to treasure and cherish.

Fourteen years later, Bernstein re-recorded Sacre with the London Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble he enjoyed guest-conducting all the way to his very last season. Among the many recordings Bernstein made with the LSO, the 5 April 1972 Sacre is one of his finest. In contrast to his 1958 one-session take, the London recording on was a laborious affair.

Due to the quadrophonic aesthetic of the era, the members of the LSO were seated in circle around Bernstein in the sessions, in order to present the music in surround sound. Following a series of sessions, the orchestra and Bernstein had come up with a technically perfect reading, but the Maestro remained dissatisfied. In order to set the music alight with the energy of a live performance, Bernstein and the LSO resorted to have one more go with the score, recording the piece in uninterrupted chunks, resulting in the final album take.

A performance of unique insight, the 1972 Sacre presents us with more thoroughly personal view on the score than Bernstein’s first recording. More refined than the 1958 take, the LSO performance may not quite match the sheer steadfastness of the NY Phil one, but provides us with myriad of added nuance and colour.

The opening counterpoint of Part One Introduction, for example, unveils with remarkable finesse and sonic detail on the LSO recording, and the splendid bassoon choir in the Evocation of the Ancestors of the Second Part, Stravinsky’s Duke Ellington lick according to Bernstein, is awash with buoyancy unmatched in the discography.

The 1972 recording captures the gorgeous sonorities of the LSO with admirable focus and tremendous display of sounding colours, while maintaining admirable clarity, serving the rhythmic intricacies of Stravinsky’s writing with perfection. The percussion section comes off beautifully, providing unique insight to the textures and colours rooted in the wide instrumental array indicated in the score.

Between the two Sacres, Bernstein recorded two further Stravinsky albums with the New York Philharmonic, including a fine coupling of Pulcinella Suite (1919-20/1949) and Concerto for Piano and Wind Orchestra, as a part of a series of releases celebrating the composer’s eightieth birthday in 1962, as well as a terrific Petrushka (1910-11/1946-47) from 1969.

Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds, the only one among his works for piano and orchestra to bear the title of a concerto, picks up where Octet left, reworking the wind and brass textures into thrilling concertante settings with the keyboard. With Seymour Lipkin as their soloist, Bernstein and the NY Phil absolutely nail the score on the 26 October 1959 recording.

Be it the agile opening allegro or the introspective, dark-hued central largo, not to mention the tour-de-force Finale, the performance is ever in accord with Stravinsky’s anti-Romantic aesthetic, while maintaining fabulous intensity throughout. The combination of Bernstein’s immersive conducting and Lipkin’s idiomatic pianism give rise to a compelling outing. The NY Phil winds and brass sound simply amazing in the first movement lento opening, scored for orchestra alone.

The orchestra is in top shape again in the Pulcinella Suite, recorded five months later, onMarch 28 1960. Bernstein and the NY Phil players embrace Stravinsky’s Pergolesi tribute with inspiration and joie de vivre, from the airy flute lines to the earthy double-bass grunts, resulting in a splendid portrait of the composer reinventing himself.

Coming from the end of Bernstein’s tenure as the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, the recording of Petrushka presents us with both the orchestra and the conductor on the top of their game. Having performed the score on numerous occasions, including a televised outing featured on the Happy Birthday, Igor Stravinsky episode of in their Young Peoples’ Concerts seven years earlier, Bernstein and the orchestra had developed a solid vision of Petrushka, giving rise to one of its most convincing album takes around.

Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in TV session in 1958. © Bert Bial, courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Digital Archives

Stravinsky’s 1946 revision rescores the 1911 original for more-or-less standard orchestral forces, with more prominent piano part. In addition, the composer made several readjustments to his harmonic writing and moved the transitory percussion, heralding the scene changes, onstage from coulisses. All in all, in its revised guise, Petrushka became more of a concert item, albeit one with prominent musical narrative.

In his conducting score, Bernstein fine-tuned some of the dynamics, in order to make full use of the concert hall acoustics, instead of those for pit orchestras, including his mp substitute for the original mf on the very first bars. Or the Columbia recording, the sublime opening by the NY Phil flutes makes a striking effect, paving the way for a superlative performance.

A Petrushka to remember, the Philharmonic Hall recording from 5 May 1969 is a feast of colour and rhythmic virtuosity, with sonic magic woven into each and ever bar. Stravinsky’s ever-changing metres, festive orchestral writing and spellbinding dramaturgy are endorsed to the fullest by the NY Phil with Bernstein, with top-class support provided by their recording team.

As a companion piece, Bernstein’s twenty-minute spoken introduction from the original LP is included on the CD as well. Based on, for the most part, the Maestro’s Young Peoples’ Concert script from 1962, Bernstein’s illuminating mini-lecture makes a lovely bonus track.

The sixth disc is compiled from two sources, a 1976 release of Oedipus Rex recorded with the BSO and a LSO performance of the Symphony of Psalms, originally coupled with the Poulenc Gloria (1959) on the 1977 LP. Joint together, the two Latin masterpieces, both recorded in 1972, make a compelling whole, with their interconnectedness marvellously revealed.

Recorded at EMI Studios, London, on the eve of the 8 April 1972 Royal Albert Hall all-Stravinsky concert by Bernstein and the LSO, commemorating the first anniversary of the composer’s passing, the Symphony of Psalms lives up to the conductor’s description of ”a prayer wrought of iron”.

Teaming up with the English Bach Festival Chorus, the LSO deliver a powerful performance of Stravinsky’s unique score, ”written for the glory of GOD and dedicated to the Boston Symphony Orchestra”, as indicated on the title page.

The first movement opens with a series of awe-inspiring orchestral chords, juxtaposed against the melodic line for two oboes and bassoon. The chorus enters, exclaiming the verses 13 and 14 from psalm 38 in the manner of an enthralling introduction, paving the way for the gorgeous double fugue second movement, based on Psalm 39, verses 2-4.

According to the composer’s conversations with Robert Craft, the setting of Psalm 150 in the third movement was ”inspired by a vision of Elijah’s chariot climbing the Heavens”; a jubilant ending for a truly one-of-a-kind symphony.

A devotional performance, Bernstein, the LSO and the chorus salute Stravinsky’s score with their mighty take, covering both the human and the divine aspects of the music with compassionate musicianship.

Going full circle, the final recording on the collection captures the Maestro back in session with his beloved Boston Symphony, working their way through the opera-oratorioOedipus Rex at the WGBH TV studio on 16 December 1972. Joined by a wonderful cast, featuring René Kollo, Tatiana Troyanos and Tom Krause, alongside the members of the Harvard Glee Club and actor Michael Wager, Bernstein and the BSO plunge into the ritualised dramaturgy of Stravinsky and Jean Cocteau with skill and commitment, coming up with a reading quite different from Stravinsky’s two recorded performances.

”Of Stravinsky’s works, I am most fond of his Oedipus, where he imitates Gluck”, Jean Sibelius was once recalled saying in an off-hand remark. While Stravinsky’s music does hark back to the eighteenth and nineteenth century idioms of the Italian opera, it is worthwhile to notice that some of the ”monumental aspects” of Sophocles’s drama (to paraphrase the opening narration), bear fleeting similarities to Sibelius’s choral writing, most evidently in the chorus part leading into the scene with Oedipus questioning the Fountain of Truth in the First Act.

With the brilliant cast, chorus and orchestra woven together into a seamless ensemble, Bernstein forges a poignant drama out of Stravinsky’s multi-layered score. However, it may take some time for their vision to take root, so the performance definitely gains from repeated hearings.

Although all the original recordings on this collection have appeared on numerous re-releases over the years, having all of them bound together in skilful remasters, with individual discs housed in cardboard sleeves with original jacket album covers, accompanied by an informative booklet, is indeed a treat.

New York Philharmonic

London Symphony Orchestra

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Leonard Bernstein, conductor

Igor Stravinsky: Suite: L’Histoire du Soldat (1918/1920)

Igor Stravinsky: Octet for Wind Instruments (1922-23)

Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite (1909-10/1919)

Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps (1911-13)

Igor Stravinsky: Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923-24/1950)

Igor Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite (1919-20/1949)

Igor Stravinsky: Petrushka (1910-11/1946-47)

Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps (1911-13)

Igor Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex (1926-27/1948)

Igor Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms (1930/1948)

Recorded 1947-1972

Sony Classical 19439854202 (2021), 6 CDs

© Jari Kallio

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