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.