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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) Complete Music for Solo Piano
Oxana Shevchenko (piano)
rec. 2017, St. Mary the Virgin Collegiate Church, Haddington, Scotland DELPHIAN DCD34203 [55:52 + 60:03]
Stravinsky was himself a pianist, and he said he always composed at the piano and tried out every new composition on it. Yet he was not a pianist-composer in the manner of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. He wrote comparatively little for the instrument, with only two major solo works, the 1924 sonata and the Serenade in A. So this two disc collection offering itself as his complete piano works has to be bulked out with minor works and transcriptions, one of which is not by the composer himself. The result is a somewhat miscellaneous collection, though Stravinsky being the composer he was, one of considerable interest.
I shall consider the works in chronological order rather than as arranged. We need not take time over the tiny Scherzo, one of Stravinsky’s earliest surviving works. Nor should we be detained by the sonata in F sharp minor, although it is the longest work in the collection. It is a student composition, and, while working on it Stravinsky went for advice to Rimsky-Korsakov. This led to his period of extended study with the older composer, who remained his mentor until he died. The sonata is a correct academic exercise in the full-blooded idiom of Russian pianism and, despite Shevchenko’s considerable efforts, is wholly devoid of interest. The composer himself thought it had been ‘fortunately lost,’ but the manuscript survived in the state library.
The Four Studies are more interesting, partly in showing a road Stravinsky decided not to take. Like the sonata they draw on traditional piano technique but they are interestingly chromatic, with more than a hint of Scriabin, whose music Stravinsky admired at the time, though he denied it later. They are one of the few works of Stravinsky to carry an opus number.
Next we come to the excerpts from the ballet The Firebird, which made Stravinsky’s reputation and remained his most popular work. He made a piano version, and, though it has been recorded, this was intended simply for use in rehearsal. The Italian pianist Guido Agosti made a virtuoso transcription in 1928 of the last three movements, the Infernal Dance of the followers of King Kaschei, the Berceuse and the Finale. Stravinsky presumably gave his approval and these are included here. They go with a will and show, incidentally, that, even without the gorgeous colours of the orchestra, these pieces retain their excitement and their beauty.
Stravinsky’s next ballet was Petrushka, and in 1921 the composer himself arranged his Three Movements from it: Russian Dance, In Petrushka’s cell and The Shrovetide Fair. These were dedicated to Artur Rubinstein – a recording of his 1961 performance is available. As the original ballet had a prominent part for the piano, which portrayed Petrushka, this was a congenial task. Stravinsky elaborated the piano part still further in his transcription and the result is a formidably demanding work which has long been a virtuoso vehicle, which Shevchenko despatches with aplomb. Incidentally, the pianist Mikhaïl Rudy drew both on this and on the duet version Stravinsky prepared for rehearals to transcribe the complete score as a solo work.
The next ballet was The Rite of Spring. The composer made no transcription of it, but his piano duet version, again intended for use in rehearsals, has been taken up by pianists and is often recorded. There are even solo piano versions, by Sam Raphling and others, but the composer neither made his own version nor approved any other, so it is not represented here.
During the first World War there came a couple of trifles, the Souvenir d’une marche boche and the Valse pour les enfants, and two much more important works. Ragtime was originally written for a small ensemble but Stravinsky made his own piano version. This has a famous cover, drawn by Picasso. It is a strange piece to get the hang of, not at all like Scott Joplin’s rags, but a version of the dance refracted through cubist spectacles. Similar is Piano-Rag Music, written as a present for Rubinstein, who didn’t like it. However, the composer himself liked it extremely and kept playing it, and was proud of the fact that the musical material fitted so neatly under the fingers.
Next we have the work with the cumbersome title Fragment des Symphonies pour instruments à vent à la mémoire de Claude Achille Debussy. This is the final chorale from Symphonies of Wind Instruments, originally published as a piano work in a magazine which was organizing a tribute to Debussy, who had died in 1918. The two composers had been friends and had dedicated works to each other. This is a solemn and moving piece with acrid harmonies typical of Stravinsky in this period; it is a worthy tribute. Subsequently the rest of the work was transcribed by Arthur Lourié and, indeed, this was the only version published until after the second World War. I am surprised that Shevchenko did not decide to play the whole work. The Fragment coincides exactly with the last two pages of the Lourié version.
Les cinq doits is a charming set of teaching pieces for children, of no great note in themselves except for showing that Stravinsky could simplify his style when he chose, while remaining wholly characteristic. Many years later he orchestrated them as Eight Instrumental Miniatures.
After completing his piano concerto in 1924 Stravinsky went on to write his one mature piano sonata. This is firmly in his neoclassical style, which was really more neo-baroque. There are three movements. The outer two are toccata-like, but with harmonic clashes, while the central slow movement shows, rather suprisingly, the influence of Beethoven. This is an impressive work, which would be better known were it not so isolated among the composer’s works.
Something similar can be said of the Serenade in A, which followed immediately. This is not in the key of A, but the note A plays a central role, and each of the first three movements ends with the note A being depressed without being played, allowing the strings to pick up resonances. This is more varied in mood than the sonata, with a wider expressive range, and is arguably Stravinsky’s finest solo piano work.
We end with two short works dating from the time of the second World War. Although composed many years later, the Tango seems to be a partner to the earlier Ragtime, though this time the piano version is the original, and a version for small ensemble followed some years later. This is an attractive and straightforward piece, not fractured like Ragtime, though with a slight hint of parody.
The Circus Polka was written for Barnum and Bailey’s circus and first performed by their troupe of young elephants. There were versions for wind band and for symphony orchestra; Stravinsky made his own piano version. This is a splendidly boisterous piece, though apparently the syncopations disturbed the elephants. Towards the end there is a distorted quotation from Schubert’s Marche militaire.
Shevchenko’s verve and nimble fingers carry her through this wide range of material. Although she does what she can for the early works, she is at her best in the works from Ragtime onwards, and particularly in the sonata and the Serenade in A. Since these are, in my view, also the best works here, this makes for a satisfying collection, despite its disparate nature. The recording is clear and the sleevenotes excellent.
Although there are other recordings of many of the works here, and the Three movements from Petrushka has attracted many pianists – there is a famous version by Pollini – the only other set which pretends to completeness is that by Martin Jones on Nimbus 5519/20. This omits the Souvenir d’une marche boche and Les cinq doigts but adds the complete version of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments and a piano version of Chant du rossignol, probably also made by Arthur Lourié. Jones seems to me to shape the phrases rather more idiomatically than does Shevchenko, though there is not much in it. Jenny Lin’s recital, on a single disc (Steinway STNS30028), has the important works, also some transcriptions by Stravinsky’s son Soulima, the Prologue from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov which Stravinsky transcribed in 1918 for his children, and two sketches for a sonata. So there is no clarity about what counts as Stravinsky’s complete piano works. If you are happy with the choices made here, you will find this a rewarding recital.
Stephen Barber Contents
CD1 The Firebird transc. Guido Agosti (1910 transc. 1928) [12:20]
Tango (1940) [2:48]
Ragtime (1918) [4:48]
Valse pour les enfants (1917) [1:00]
Four études Op. 7 (1908) [8:03]
Circus Polka (1942) [3:34]
Les cinq doigts (1920-1) [6:37]
Piano-Rag Music (1919) [3:16]
Sonata (1924) [10:59]
Scherzo (1902) [2:20]
Three Movements from Petrushka (1910 transc. 1921) [16:14]
Souvenir d’une marche boche (1915) [1:49]
Sonata in F sharp minor (1903-4) [28:48]
Fragment des Symphonies pour instruments à vent à la mémoire de Claude Achille Debussy (1920) [2:29]
Serenade in A (1925) [10:39]
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