Works of Igor Stravinsky is a massive set: 22 CDs of performances of Rite of Spring, Petrouschka, L’Histoire du Soldat, Symphony in E-Flat, The Rake’s Progress and more under the direction of the composer, with additional performances by his disciple Robert Craft under Stravinsky’s supervision, and a disc that also includes recordings of rehearsals and Stravinsky discussing his own music.
This collection brings us face to face with the perennial question of the relative importance of tradition and innovation in the performance of music. I usually wind up on both sides of the question: both have value, and a successful performer will find a balance point between moribund traditionalism and wild-eyed radicalism.
Of course, historically one of the problems with traditions was that they were so easily lost: not every great performer has had disciples willing to continue his/her teachings. Fortunately, the advent of sound recording has removed most of those problems, so that we now know how Gershwin thought Rhapsody in Blue should sound, and can experience Rachmaninoff’s thinking on his own piano concertos. And Works of Igor Stravinsky gives us a very clear idea of how Igor Stravinsky thought his own works should be performed.
I don’t think anyone is going to argue the weight of Stravinsky’s influence on twentieth-century music. It is so pervasive that, for example, while listening to Petrouschka, I was reminded of the soundtrack for every busy urban scene in every film practically since sound became part of movies. No less a figure than Claude Debussy wrote to Stravinsky: “It is a special satisfaction to tell you how much you have enlarged the boundaries of the permissible in the empire of sound.” And this was in 1913, when Stravinsky was still only in his thirties.
I should point out (once again), that I don’t think the creator necessarily has the final word on his creations. Others may see things that he is too close to discern, or facets that he didn’t think important may take on new weight as times change. In this regard, I found Stravinsky’s interpretations often fairly dry — not quite academic, but without the elements of romance that other interpreters have found in the works. This is not an overwhelming objection, mind you, but after hearing something like the Rite of Spring as interpreted by Seiji Ozawa, Stravinsky’s version is relatively tame.
The major flaw in this set is that it’s organized by type of work — ballets, symphonies, oratorios, sacred music, etc. Consequently, we have no clear idea of Stravinsky’s development over the course of his career. Stravinsky, like most artists, went through various stages, from the radical avant-gardism of his youth, through a period, much like Bartók, Kodaly, Enescu, and Vaughan Williams, of incorporating folk and traditional materials into his work, and from there into a strict neoclassicism and a modernist synthesis. This is a progression that I think could have been very well illustrated — and led to a deeper understanding of Stravinsky’s music — by organizing the collection to take account of it.
However, I’m not going to say pass this up. It’s a tremendous collection, the music of Stravinsky straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. If you’d like to hear the way one of the twentieth century’s most important composers thought about his own music, go for it.
(Sony / BMG Int’l, 2007).