The God Box

Richard Taruskin had the honor and privilege of writing booklet notes for not one, but two important collections of Stravinsky’s music that were released last year. In Deutsche Grammaphon’s Stravinsky: Complete Edition, he summed up the composer’s rare stature with the following anecdote and analysis. Tarsukin writes that Vladmimir Ussachevsky told him:

‘…after crossing [himself] and rising from [his] knees in front of Arnold Schoenberg’s death mask in [Schoenberg’s] working room, [Stravinsky] turned to Mrs. Schoenberg and said “Now I am alone.” Who, you, who can say that now?’

It was a haunting question. There were still composers one admired, even revered. But Carter, Berio and Boulez were honored in one camp. Copland, Shostakovich and Britten were honored in another. Stravinsky was honored in both: his music was indispensably a part of the academic canon and the performing repertoire alike. People both praised it in the classroom and paid good money to hear it. No textbook or music history course could omit him, and neither could any concert or opera (or ballet!) season. And that was what made him unique among the living while he lived. Stravinsky seemed uniquely to exemplify, among contemporary composers, the appeal that Mozart had exerted in his day…. The same compositions that the professionals have analyzed to death have been recorded dozens of times for the delectation of non-matriculated music-lovers. Is there any other modern master of whom that can be said?

Is there? Perhaps Steve Reich is approaching that status, but his academic acceptance, while growing, is not yet fully settled. Stravinsky was one of the rare Titans, and even rarer was the accident of his birth that brought him together with the advent of audio recording technology.

I’ve said it before and will say it again, because it bears infinite repeating: we have lost something valuable with the demise of the big old record labels. Like the Hollywood studio system, they weren’t usually the best places for artists but like the movie studios, they could bring together amazing amounts of talent to produce enduring and enviably well-made classics.

For records, the outstanding example is Columbia in the 1960s. The studio had under contract Miles Davis, Glenn Gould, Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein, and Igor Stravinsky, five of the most important musicians of the 20th century. They each had essentially carte blanche to record what they wanted.

Stravinsky is a special case and especially important. His accomplishments were a culmination of the history of classical music that came before him and have been immeasurably and continuously influential. In the timeline of Western art music, there are certain composers who have determined the course of music after them, and Stravinsky is one. And, as Taruskin implied, he was a composer, rather than a musician, and a contemporary one at that—record labels signed musicians, but composers?

Fortunately for us, Columbia did so, and the important became the wonderfully unusual. For the music of Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, et al, we can hear how musicians think about their music; interpretation. With Stravinsky, we can hear his own thoughts, as straight from his mind to our ears as possible.

His recordings are musically exceptional. They have been available off and on since the late 1920s, and had been collected in the 1990s as the Recorded Legacy box set. At the time, that was essential for the musically literate listener, just as having Joyce, Hemingway, and Borges was fundamental for someone who valued literature. Last year, that set was superseded by Igor Stravinsky: The Complete Columbia Album Collection. It is both vastly different and better by orders of magnitude.

The difference is clear in both size and organization. Where the Recorded Legacy was 22 CDs, the Album Collection is 56, plus a DVD. The earlier set collected previous recordings in categories like ballets, chamber music, etc. The new box contains CD reproductions of the original albums, arranged chronologically.

Because they are the original albums, there is music from other composers that was paired with Stravinsky on certain releases; those include Bach, Bernstein, Copland, Arensky,Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Their contributions only make up a small portion of the additional 34 CDs, but they allow the chance to hear classic LPs, like 1962’s Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Madrigalists: Tributes to his Astonishing Life and Music—organized by Robert Craft, it has Madrigals from Gesualdo and Stravinsky’s Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa. This was a teeth-rattler when first issued, and the culmination of Stravinsky, guided by Craft, rediscovering music of the Italian Renaissance.

Another reason for the difference in CDs is that, as reproductions of original LPs, the CDs each don’t hold as much music as on the Recorded Legacy. And another is that Stravinsky made a considerable number of recordings before the most well-known ones in this box. Beginning in the summer of 1928 and concluding with a performance of Mozart and his own piano music in 1938, Stravinsky laid down a series of LPs for British Colombia (later to become part of EMI). These are all in the new box and they are all terrific.

Also, Stravinsky began making mono LPs for Columbia in the 1940s, then re-recorded his body of work in stereo starting again in the 1950s (it is the stereo recordings that are in the Recorded Legacy). All of this is in the Album Collection. Some of the performances are a little rough, like the Divertimento from the Baiser de la fée played by the Orquesta Sinfónica de Mexico (this was new music in Stravinsky’s era, and musicians were learning his idiom and adapting themselves to his considerable technical challenges). And as much as Stravinsky complained about conductors, his own conducting technique was mediocre and he could not manage what he felt were the ideal tempos of works like the Rite of Spring.

But the composer was unsurpassed at conveying his unique style, either on the podium or though his assistant and amanuensis, Craft. The sound throughout is the classic objective surface, which can be warm or cool depending on the moment, and rhythms that can be felt in the body. That these are Stravinsky’s own recordings is immeasurably important. As Taruskin writes in the Album Collection booklet (yes, he got both gigs), “Comparing the risk a new composition runs when performed for the first time with the security of a classic, say by Beethoven, [Stravinsky] complained late in life that ‘what is wrong with the Beethoven performance is evident and cannot damage the work, but what is wrong in the performance of the unfamiliar work is not at all evident, and the line between sense and nonsense in it may, and often does, depend upon its performance.’” Stravinsky used the recording studio as a place to create and disseminate his own idiom.

The results include unsurpassed versions of the three early ballets, of Oedipus Rex, Orpheus, and Agon, and unequalled renditions of Symphony in Three Movements and The Rake’s Progress. These are all collected in the Albums box, but with the inclusion of the early recordings, and the first mono renditions, you also get two versions of Apollon musagète, the original and revised versions of the Piano Concerto, multiple versions of the Rite, and of the Petrushka and Firebird suites, two complete Fairy’s Kiss (and two complete Divertimentos), two Soldier’s Tales, two of each of the major Symphonies, four (!) recordings of Les Noces in all versions, two of Orpheus, Oedipus Rex, and The Rake’s Progress, two different takes of the rarely recorded Persephone, multiple recordings of various songs, and both the exceptional Benny Goodman performance of the Ebony Concerto and that of Woody Herman and his orchestra, the original commissioner.

All of this is in excellent sound, remastered primarily by Andreas K. Meyer/Jeanne Montalvo, and Martin Kistner. There is more space and bloom all around than on the Recorded Legacy, which has solid sound, and the mono is smooth. With a beautiful hard-bound booklet, it is in every way fabulous.

The DG set in any other circumstance would stand out as essential, but in comparison it is a worthy also-ran, like all those teams that lost to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the NBA Finals. It collects performances from their own substantial catalogue. The major interpreters within are Boulez, Bernstein, and Claudio Abbado, and while there might be some subjective quibbles (I prefer Chailly to Abbado, for example), these are all contenders for leading versions. Along with the composer’s body of work, it has some wonderful historical recordings; the Violin Concerto in D played by Samuel Dushkin—who commissioned it—with Stravinsky conducting, and Jean Cocteau narrating the Soldier’s Tale conducted by Igor Markevitch. DG has also included Ernest Ansermet’s Petrushka from 1947, and Monteux’s 1956 Le Sacre (Monteux was Stravinsky’s favorite conductor, but the composer had reservations about this recording). And there is a bonus disc of Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim playing Le Sacre for two pianos.

The DG set goes for (currently) about $100, while the Album Collection is $139. Price per disc is actually higher with DG, at $3.33 versus $2.43, which shows that in pure dollar terms the Columbia box is a superior bargain. Aesthetically, the choice is between excellent professional interpretations and a more technically variable but musically and philosophically superior ur-text. But why choose? Get both.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

One comment

Comments are closed.