Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Salonen’s Preference for Stravinsky’s Breadth

It has been a while since I have filed a dispatch on my project to write about Sony Classical’s 61-CD box set of all of its recordings made by conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Those who follow this site regularly will probably let me get away with the usual “I’ve been busy” excuse; but it has also been a consequence of my having to lie in a bed of my own making. Having established a set of six categories and completed the eleven CDs of the first category at the end of this past May, I then had to embark on the largest of the categories (nineteen CDs), which also happened to include the largest number of albums devoted to a single composer (Igor Stravinsky, who nosed out Carl Nielsen by a fraction of an album). Indeed, when one takes stock of how many albums have been allotted to how many composers, this category could easily have been entitled “Stravinsky and his Contemporaries.”

One of the reasons that Stravinsky receives so much attention may well be that his productive life can be divided into three distinct periods. This is usually one of the first things that any music student learns about Stravinsky; so it is no surprise that the Wikipedia author(s) acknowledged those three periods.
  1. Using the terminology from his Wikipedia page, the earliest period is called the “Russian” period. Departing from the dates given on that page, I would say that this period began in 1905, when Stravinsky began his private lessons with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and basically ended with the conclusion of World War I, which Stravinsky escaped by moving to Switzerland. The major work from that “period of exile” was “L’Histoire du soldat” (the soldier’s tale), which, in spite of its title used by Swiss librettist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, is a Russian folk tale.
  2. This was followed by the “neoclassical” period, which can probably be said to have begun with the score for the “Pulcinella” ballet, which draws heavily upon music by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (and several compositions that Stravinsky thought were by Pergolesi) and was completed in 1920. The last major work in this period was his three-act opera The Rake’s Progress, which is rich with implicit (if not explicit) nods to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
  3. The final period is the “serial” period, named after the techniques engaged by Arnold Schoenberg in his efforts to work with “emancipated” dissonance and departure from the need for a tonal center.
Salonen may not be comprehensive in accounting for all of these periods, but one should not expect this of him. Stravinsky’s repertoire is rich with compositions that were not for a symphony orchestra, and one would not expect to encounter those pieces in this collection. Nevertheless, Salonen’s relationship with Sony appears to have gone to commendable lengths to provide adequate representation of all three of the periods. The “Russian” period is probably best known for the music that Stravinsky provided for three ballets performed by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, “The Firebird,” “Petrushka,” and “The Rite of Spring,” all of which are included in the Sony collection. The “neoclassical” selections include a generous account of Stravinsky’s approaches to both concertos and symphonies, including his violin concerto, which is on a CD shared with the two violin concertos of Sergei Prokofiev. Finally, the “serial” period is represented by both the “Cantata,” which is atonal but not twelve-tone, and the “Movements for Piano and Orchestra,” which is structured around a single twelve-tone row.

I should note that almost all of the Stravinsky recordings were made with European ensembles, almost all British. Only the violin concerto is performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (and soloist Cho-Liang Lin). Given that Stravinsky spent roughly the last 30 years of his life in Los Angeles (more time than he had spent living in any other country), one would have thought that the repertoire of the Los Angeles Philharmonic would reflect his “favorite son” status. Ironically, about all he has to show for his time there is a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the cover of Time magazine:

Boris Chaliapin’s illustration of Igor Stravinsky for the cover of Time (July 26, 1948) (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

As to the other composers in this category, many of them are given “usual suspects” accounts, recordings of pieces that have been recorded so many times in the past that it is hard to maintain a census. That is particularly true of the selections for Claude Debussy and Béla Bartók, as well as the second of Prokofiev’s two violin concertos. Both Paul Hindemith and Dmitri Shostakovich are represented by selections heard less often, even if they were more popular when their respective composers were still alive. Ironically, the Shostakovich CD includes Yefim Bronfman, soloist for the composer’s two piano concertos, playing the Opus 57 quintet in G minor with the Juilliard String Quartet. To be fair, I think very highly of this quintet; but what does it have to do with Salonen?

Schoenberg runs into a similar problem. The one CD that consists entirely of his music also consists only of chamber music reworked for string ensemble (the Stockholm Chamber Orchestra). Far more interesting is the account of his piano concerto by Emanuel Ax performing with the Philharmonia Orchestra, perhaps the best example of twelve-tone music at its most accessible. Ironically, the Schoenberg concerto shares this CD with the two piano concertos by Franz Liszt!

The one “outlier” in this section is a single CD devoted to Luigi Dallapiccola, one of the earliest adopters of Schoenberg’s approaches to atonality who had no direct contact with either Schoenberg or his two best-known students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern (neither of whom is represented in this collection). The CD presents two related pieces, the choral cantata Canti di prigionia (songs of imprisonment) and the one-act (with prologue) opera “Il prigioniero” (the prisoner), which was the result of further development of the thematic material in his cantata. (The recording presents these pieces in reverse chronological order.) The Wikipedia page calls “Il prigioniero” “one of the first completed operas” based on serial techniques. It was composed between 1944 and 1948, long after the composition of Berg’s Lulu; but, of course, Lulu was only completed after the composer’s death, given its first completed performance in 1979.

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