The Stravinsky Shuffle

The Stravinsky Shuffle

Why listen to Stravinksy in sequence when you can click shuffle on your iPod and rediscover the music anew?


The recent reissue of the twenty-two-CD Igor Stravinsky box set (Sony Classical, $35)–a collection of some twenty-five hours of music conducted mostly by Stravinsky, originally titled The Edition and now called Works–is at once an irresistible bargain and an anachronism, a reminder of how radically music packaging and listening habits have changed since Stravinsky died in 1971 at 88. Like air travel today, the new Stravinsky box is stripped down to economy: gone are the pictures, program notes and libretti of the original; the liner booklet is minimal and its type minuscule. The original CD box, released in 1991, was itself a downsizing of the 1986 repackaging of original LP releases from the 1950s and ’60s. The vinyl sounded better than any CDs (even though Columbia Records, now Sony, was never celebrated for its engineering), and the jackets teemed with notes printed in readable type. When these recordings first appeared, perhaps even in their first CD incarnation, a listener would have lounged comfortably in front of a hi-fi. Now music is a movable feast. We listen on iPods or iTunes. It would be helpful (and considerate) if Sony put all the original liner notes on a website, but for a listener on the treadmill a libretto is useless and sound quality less important than the quantity of noise that headphones can suppress. Yet I think the gym could be the perfect place to get reacquainted with the joys of Stravinsky’s music. Just download the whole box and listen in shuffle mode. Almost every track will set your feet moving.

Randomized listening can expose the banality of one’s musical tastes. Left to our own willfulness, we listen to the same old pieces in the same old way, seeking out the “good” and skipping the “bad.” Or we avoid the “early works” in favor of the “late”–though in Stravinsky’s case most people would choose the opposite. Yet with Stravinsky that turns out to be the wrong choice, since there are unexpected pleasures throughout his career. If you’re lucky, the shuffle will surprise you with the first act of the opera The Nightingale, as fresh-sounding as when it was written a century ago, its precociously mastered orchestral colors and catchy tunes still vibrant, or with Pribaoutki, folk songs that seem to rise from the soil (with an earth-mother performance by Cathy Berberian). Perhaps you’ll have a chance encounter with the lyric elegance of “Eglogue II” from Duo Concertant (in a historical performance with Stravinsky and Joseph Szigeti), or the almost Coplandesque variations from the Sonata for Two Pianos, or the plaintive iterations of “adjuva” (help Thou my disbelief) from the choral-orchestral piece Canticum Sacrum, in which Stravinsky, heeding Yeats, set sail for Byzantium. Or you may collide with the two failures in the box, both, most unfortunately, works of the greatest importance: Les Noces, sung in English when only Russian will do, and an Oedipus Rex that hits new highs and lows in out-of-tune singing.

Serendipity has its limits. Sometimes the shuffle slices and dices a piece cruelly. I have a Leonard Bernstein recording of Mahler’s Ninth on my iPod that is divided into tracks rarely more than two minutes long, often shorter. These Mahler molecules burst open from time to time in no particular order and in unfriendly successions–say, after a track from Miles Ahead (the classic Miles Davis/Gil Evans album). In the shuffle they act as teasers, reminding me that I have neglected the symphony of symphonies for too long. For Mahler you need to get off the treadmill and put your life on hold.

Stravinsky’s music, by contrast, was composed in short takes. The ballet Agon is composed of many short movements, each about a minute long and coherent and complete in itself. I could happily savor the seventy-two-second “dueling banjos” mandolin-harp duet of the “Gaillarde” (a movement from Agon)–with its twanging rhythmic interplay framed by floating harmonics in the flutes and double basses–replayed on its own for hours on end. Moreover, unlike Mahler’s music, with its constant swings between the extremes of the dynamic range, much of Stravinsky’s music is composed in his trademark mezzo-forte (shared with Miles Davis); Stravinsky’s “cool” sound, reinforced by Columbia’s bone-dry acoustics, frees you from the tiresome business of adjusting the volume.

More important, shuffling Stravinsky liberates his music from chronology, which is often confused with progression and development. Stravinsky’s music challenges lazy notions of tradition, history, time itself–not a constant flow but a concatenation of asymmetric bumps, grinds and lurches, full stops. Critics have cast his music into the three-period model forged for Beethoven, with Stravinsky’s early, middle and late being Russian, French and American. Hostile critics have bemoaned a progressive decline: the brilliant young Russian of the early ballets, the rootless cosmopolitan living in Paris in the years between the world wars, the old man in Los Angeles pandering to the serialist fashions of a younger generation.

Yet shuffling reveals that these “periods” were all connected, not discrete but simultaneous. Stravinsky would echo the Russian folk chant of Les Noces in the esoteric twelve-tone counterpoint of Threni, and he invoked the neoclassical opening of his Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra in his Webernesque Movements for Piano and Orchestra, written thirty years later. Stravinsky applied the same principles of time travel to the wider musical past, moving not just forward (like Webern) or backward (like late Strauss) but in any way he pleased. In the ballet Agon we hear the French Renaissance, the Elizabethan consort, quotes from Schoenberg and Webern, echoes of bebop, a reminder of The Rite of Spring. In Agon‘s opening fanfare, poet and dance critic Edwin Denby even detected snatches of the opening notes of Tommy Dorsey’s “Chinatown, My Chinatown,” “misremembered on an electric mandolin.”

The music in this museum-in-a-box provides so much pleasure that it raises, once again, the question of Stravinsky’s underwhelming place in the concert repertory. To this day, most orchestras feel obliged to play only four pieces: The Firebird, Petruchka, The Rite of Spring and Symphony of Psalms; of the four concertos, only the Violin Concerto in D, which is slowly claiming a place in the repertory alongside the contemporary concertos of Prokofiev, Bartók, Barber and Berg, is performed with any regularity. Balletomanes, on the other hand, can hear almost all of Stravinsky all the time; yet it is striking that his great trilogy of Greek ballets (Apollo, Orpheus, Agon) has not achieved the concert-hall status of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. I think resistance to the later music has two sources: the nature of the music itself and a style of interpretation still inhibited by the composer’s performances as enshrined in this box set. As a glance at his catalog reveals, Stravinsky was much more a composer for the theater than for the concert hall, and for him, unlike Wagner, the theater always involved collaboration. When Stravinsky was brought in to compose music for The Firebird, plans for the ballet were well under way. He learned to be a team player, and over the years, especially in his work with Balanchine, he thought of his music as a complement to the visual component, half of a complete work of art.

After The Rite of Spring, with its two impressionistic preludes, Stravinsky abandoned the mood-and-atmosphere business, leaving it to the choreographers. Devoid of dance, Apollo can sound like a pastiche of scores by Ludwig Minkus and Léo Delibes; with movement it becomes a soaring hymn to beauty. Nothing in the pas de deux from Agon sounds particularly erotic; Balanchine made it hot and sweaty. Sometimes Stravinsky even seems to write against the danced story: the Furies surround Orpheus, bind his eyes and return Eurydice to him to a breezy boogie-woogie.

Perhaps these works will come to life in the concert hall only for listeners with ears as acute as Balanchine’s, or when conducted with a similarly attuned maestro. Most composers seek out conductors to champion their music. Stravinsky, however, relied on conducting gigs for a good part of his income. In his writings he rebuked rival conductors, and he boasted of signing the gluteus maximus of an ersatz Greek statue in the Villa D’este Wilhelm von der Furtwangler–revenge for an unhappy collaboration on the 1924 Piano Concerto with the great German maestro, whose famous command of rubato in Buckner or Wagner would have been antithetical to Stravinsky’s precise and unvarying tempo.

Stravinsky dismissed the notion of interpretation. The conductor’s job was to set the right tempo and not get in the way of the music. This is an apt description of a ballet conductor’s task, but the concert hall has a different dynamic; cynics might say that Stravinsky reduced the interpretive role of the conductor to match his own limited technique: head in the score, arms flailing wildly. It’s unfortunate that Stravinsky, for whatever reasons, discouraged the growth of a diverse interpretive community for his music; the appearance of his “definitive” Columbia recordings, many of them made hastily with pickup orchestras, and his vigilance in correcting the misdeeds of competitors may have scared off some worthy rival efforts. Neither Bernstein nor Reiner recorded the Greek trilogy, though they put their distinctive stamps on The Rite of Spring and The Song of the Nightingale, respectively. To my ear, the notion that Stravinsky’s music is simply a matter of tempo and objectivity reached a dead end in the much-praised performances by Pierre Boulez, in which a concern for lucidity over every other quality drains the music of its earthy vitality.

Recordings of The Rite of Spring by Valery Gergiev and Daniel Barenboim (the Furtwängler disciple, of all people) reveal that neither Stravinsky nor Boulez had exhausted this subject. Gergiev pricks up your ears with the first note: the famous opening bassoon solo, played molto espressivo, becomes a human voice, not an instrumental effect. Gergiev represents the cutting edge for the post-Soviet reclamation of Stravinsky’s music by Russian performers. Russians have always heard all of Stravinsky’s work as Russian music. Whereas some critics thought Stravinsky’s 1924 Piano Concerto was reaching back to Bach, Prokofiev detected quotes from Tchaikovsky. Significantly, Gergiev’s recording pairs The Rite of Spring with Scriabin’s symphony Poem of Ecstasy, reminding us of their common roots in theosophical mysticism. (Stravinsky expunged the many traces of Scriabin when he reduced the score of Firebird to an orchestral suite. “I could never love a bar of his bombastic music,” he wrote.) Russians hear Stravinsky’s neoclassicism as a move from St. Petersburg to Moscow, a turn away from Rimsky-Korsakov to the Tchaikovsky of the Rococco Variations and the Serenade for Strings; for them the music remains both Russian and Romantic. Russians may even reclaim the later, serial music.

During a recent troll of the bargain bins, I fished out an unexpected recording of three works by Sviatoslav Richter I had assumed were beyond the pale for Soviet musicians: Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 2, Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto and Stravinsky’s 1959 Movements for Piano and Orchestra, usually considered his most arcane creation. This CD perfectly illustrates how interpretation, not literal “execution,” keeps music alive. Richter takes the fourth movement of Stravinsky’s angular, sputtering piece much slower than Stravinsky does, expanding the dimensions of the music and thereby connecting its sustained string harmonics to the nocturnal mysteries that open the second part of The Rite of Spring. (Those in the San Francisco Bay Area interested in hearing this “new” Russian Stravinsky might check out the three-day Stravinsky festival at Stanford University that will begin March 7, featuring pianist Alexander Toradze.) Valery Gergiev is a very busy man, lately having occupied himself with Prokofiev’s mammoth War and Peace, but I hope he can find the time to record a box set to rival Stravinsky’s. Then I will download both to my iPod, mount the treadmill, select shuffle and play guess the conductor.

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