Stravinsky In America
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Stravinsky In America
A fascinating compilation of works, both major and minor, that illustrate Stravinsky's genius interacting with an America far from his Russian roots and Parisian inclinations. Included are pieces as dizzyingly varied as arrangements of our national anthem and "Happy Birthday" to the hermetic, atonal Huxley Variations. Michael Tilson Thomas excels in all of them, conveying the immense stature as well as the icy wit of the all-too-rarely heard Agon, the raucous humor of the Circus Polka, and the jewel-like precision of the Variations. Throughout, MTT captures Stravinsky's biting rhythms and imparts an austere beauty to works such as the Variations that seem, in other hands, simply austere. He benefits from an impressive sound that reveals every detail. One of the conductor's finest discs, and essential for anyone interested in 20th-century music. --Dan Davis
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STAR SPANGLED BANNER (1 min, 50 sec). This begins with a snare drum roll. There are a few intentional off-notes, which remind the listener that the hand of Mr. Stravinsky was involved in this arrangement. Mr. Stravinsky had a little run-in the law because of this composition. You can see a mug shot of the composer, with a placard reading 5474, 4 15 40. At the time the piece was first performed, it was illegal in Boston to make compositions of this type. A documentary film called, "Once at a Border" by Tony Palmer and produced by Isolde Films (166 minutes) provides details on this run-in with the law. You can see the relevant excerpt on YouTube, where this excerpt takes the form of an interview of Robert Craft. This excerpt is called "Stravinsky in Hollywood. Robert Craft remembers the composer's years at 1600 North Wetherly Drive."
CIRCUS POLKA (3 min, 34 sec). This was composed in 1942. I also have the recording by Herbert Von Karajan. This is one of my favorite compositions in the classical repertoire, and it is part of the "Top 50" list of my favorites. The style is reminiscent to that found in Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks (1938) and Concerto in D (1948), with the exception of the comical intrusion of a parody of Schubert's March Militaire, which occurs at 2 minutes and 50 seconds in CIRCUS POLKA. The piece has 2/4 meter throughout and moves in bursts and jerks within that meter, concluding with a series of off-beat stamps (see, Program Notes of April 2002 by Barbara Heninger, Redwood Symphony).
Mr. Stravinsky composed the piano version in February 1942. Film director Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981) then scored it for wind band. The composition with dancers was first performed at Madison Square Garden on April 9, 1942. The choreography was by Balanchine (See, New York Times April 10, 1942.) About two years later, Mr. Stravinsky arranged the piano version for full orchestra.
ODE (10 min, 17 sec). This composition is also cut from the same cloth as Dumbarton Oaks and Concerto in D. ODE begins in an introspective manner, and is like a winding pathway in a dark forest, and it evokes feelings similar to those evoked by the opening minutes of Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste. At the 3 minute and 10 second mark in ODE, the mood changes to that of a vigorous fox hunt, complete with hunting horn motifs from a battery of French horns. I will be listening to ODE again and again.
SCHERZO A LA RUSSE (3 min, 56 sec). This piece begins with a pulsating beat in a motif that is reiterated to 90 seconds and at 2 and a half minutes into the piece. At 3 minutes and 10 seconds, comes a cheerful fanfare that is reminiscent to something from Copland's Appalachian Spring. SCHERZO A LA RUSSE is enjoyable.
SCENES DE BALLET (17 min, 32 sec). This piece was composed in 1944. It has an attractively nervous start-and-stop quality that is found in Stravinsky's Concerto in D. At 4 min, 20 sec into the piece, comes a chirpy-dancing flute motif, and this is followed by a few minutes of quiet music. The quietness continues until 9 min, 50 sec, where some louder but not really interesting music follows. Then, during the very last minute of this piece, comes a loud part that makes use of serialistic technique. Listeners will likely wake up from their sleep, when the loud part occurs during the final minute.
CONCERTO FOR TWELVE INSTRUMENTS (6 min, 31 sec). This piece originally took the form of Concerto for String Quartet, composed in 1920. Mr. Stravinsky revised it in 1952, to create CONCERTO FOR TWELVE INSTRUMENTS. The piece, at times, is more like random samplings of the sounds from individual instruments, and less like real music. But at the 3 minute time point, the piece gets louder, driving, and attractively nervous, in the nervous style found in Concerto in D. At the end of Concerto for Twelve Instruments, the piece has a "march of the evil dwarves" quality to it.
AGON (23 min, 52 sec). This piece begins with an anthemic trumpet fanfare, and a barrage of thumps from the double basses. Unfortunately, for the first 4 minutes, this composition is like random noise. At 4 and a half minutes, the timpani and flute second begin a dialogue. At 5 and a half minutes, the violins begin a scraping sound, and there is a weird dialogue between violins and French horns. At 7 minutes, comes a pretty episode with mellow meanderings from a piano and flutes. At 8 min, 10 sec, the random noise returns. The piano provides a pointillistic alleatory riff. At 10 min, the trumpets provide some avian chatterings. This type of sound effect is similar to that provided by the trumpets at the beginning of Lutoslawsky's cello concerto. My opinion is that if you like the modernistic style of Lutoslawsky's compositions, then you will enjoy Stravinsky's AGON. My favorite Lutoslawsky composition is his Variations on a Theme by Paganini.
GREETING PRELUDE (49 seconds). This piece is a variation of the familiar birthday song. I like this composition, and wish that it was twice as long.
CANON (49 seconds). This piece is loud and it is like a distorted version of the familiar theme from the final minutes of Stravinsky's Firebird. But unlike Firebird, it is not the case that Canon is a pretty composition.
VARIATIONS (5 min, 51 sec). This piece has many aleatory honks and toots. The final minute of this piece has an attractive wash of serialistic tone clusters.
CONCLUSION. Mr. Tilson Thomas is my favorite conductor because of his devotion to the music of Charles Ives, Gustav Mahler, Charles Ruggles, and Igor Stravinsky. I also own his album of Stravinsky compositions for two pianos, with Mr. Thomas on piano. I have seen Mr. Tilson Thomas conducting at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco on a couple of occasions.
Beyond "Agon," which is the best known music here, it also features:
- an Ode "Triagon" from 1943 which I'd never even read about let alone heard. Sometimes attractive but seems like a first draft.
- The 1944 Scenes de ballet, a more accessible work written at the request of a Broadway impresario. After "Agon", this was my favorite of the longer works on the CD. Although it ends weakly, I thought, the first few minutes are downright beautiful.
- The Huxley Variations are a twelve-tone composition from 1964.
- The Concertino for ten instruments (a 1953 arrangement) and Scherzo a la russe (1944) are shorter works.
- Some short "bonbons", of which the most famous is the Happy Birthday arrangement written for Pierre Monteux as a Greeting Prelude (1955).
The performances are very good. I directly compared Tilson Thomas' "Agon" to the release by Hiroyuki Iwaki and the Melbourne Orchestra and felt that Iwaki's approach of emphasizing thematic threads amid the sometimes dense patterns of instrumental lines works better. That said, Tilson Thomas' performance is worthy.
Recorded sound is very good, a consistent feature of Tilson Thomas' releases. A recommended disc.
Stravinsky's version of the National Anthem is really interesting. Not only is it majestic (the tempo is slightly slower than in most versions which increases the feelings of patriotism and pride for our beautiful country - at least for me) but the orchestral arrangement has delightful harmonies thanks to the use of the 7th chord. It is a little singular, but I think it enhances the beauty of the work with richer harmonies. The art of the orchestration is also apparent: each section of the orchestra has a specific purpose, and if one would take one of the instruments out, the orchestral balance would be broken.
The art of orchestration in Stravinsky's output can be heard throughout the different tracks of the recording, all written while the composer was in America. Most of the pieces are single compositions that are pretty short. The "Circus Polka" is reminiscent of Vienna's golden age with the music of the Strauss family, and is very classical in structure. The same applies to both ballets recorded here: the "Scenes de ballet" (track 5) and "Agon" (track 7). The "Scherzo a la russe" (track 4) is also another example that Stravinsky, despite being a modern composer, knew how to write music according to the 19th century fashion.
On the other hand, we also discover the modern facet of the composer in the other pieces of the recording. Two of them really stand out: the "Ode" (track 3) and the "Variations" (track 10) which are longer than most of the other pieces on the recording (10 and 5 minutes respectively). Here, we discover new harmonies. The 7th chord is used again (it was one of Stravinsky's favorites to experiment with) and more dissonances can be heard. In some passages, we actually reach to atonality thanks to chord progressions using multiple accidentals. No way to know if you're in the major or minor mode anymore. I am not really fond of that, but it is interesting to discover. If you do not know Stravinsky, this is the recording to go for. The variety in the works performed here will satisfy any listener!
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