I’ve been listening off and on for some months now (and it will occupy me for many more months) to the 22 CD set of Stravinsky conducts Stravinsky that Sony released a while ago – the one that Alex Ross wrote about here, and Pliable wrote about here. As of this writing it is available on Amazon here.
The set is obviously an important document of a great composer interpreting his own work. (But read today’s Allan Kozinn piece in the Times regarding the problem of taking the composer’s intention too seriously. I liked the article, though I was a bit confused by his references to Schoenberg as “contemporary music”.) While, as a native Clevelander, I will always revere the Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez Sacre from 1969, holding it above all other versions (I haven’t heard their remake), there is a compellingly crazed intensity to Stravinsky’s own recording. Symphony of Psalms is another highlight, with the stasis of the last movement working its magic. But I have to say that a lot of these recordings just aren’t very good, with ensemble that fails to lock in (this shows up most in the note-filled allegros like the fast movements of the Concerto for Piano and Winds) and appalling intonation – try Agon, for example, where the players are having an agon of their own. The comment attributed to Schoenberg – “my music isn’t modern, it’s just badly played” – applies here.
There are some recorded bits of rehearsal included in the set, and it is disturbing to hear, in one of these, someone in the control room telling Stravinsky that a balance problem can be fixed later on. You never know with any recording just what is control room magic and what isn’t, but in a situation where the recording’s value is partly as a document of the composer’s interpretation, being reminded of the other ears that are at work is troubling. (For a recording of Stravinsky in rehearsal that is not included in this set, go here to listen to him trying out a revision of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments.)
Some intriguing details in the list of performers in this set: the all-star infield of Barber, Sessions, Copland, and Foss playing the four pianos in Les Noces (recalling such collaborations as the Sessions/Copland/Thomson team of narrators for l’Histoire with Craft conducting Speculum Musicae – a performance that took place at the Whitney Museum early in my time in NYC (I also remember that concert because it was the last time I saw the great pianist Robert Miller before his untimely death), or the Babbitt/Harbison/Carter version of the same piece at Tanglewood a few years ago); Bethany Beardslee in Threni – a rather early document of her work, I would guess; a number of songs done by Cathy Berberian; Joseph Szigeti and Stravinsky playing the Duo Concertant, alongside other Stravinsky piano performances by both Igor and son Soulima; Laurindo Almeida (yes, that Laurindo Almeida, from the L.A. Four) playing guitar in the Four Songs; and surely two of the more unexpected names: Sebastian Cabot and Elsa Lanchester as Noah and his wife in The Flood.
I’m glad I picked up this set, but I will be looking elsewhere for more satisfying performances.