Columbia Records had the foresight to record Stravinsky's interpretations of his own music during the last 15 to 20 years of his life. Many works he got to record twice: once in mono, and again in stereo, just a few years later. There's not a single item in this two-CD set that Stravinsky didn't get a second chance to record with the new technique, so this collection might seem a little perverse. However, Sony has withdrawn its Igor Stravinsky Edition, and so, for the most part, this is the only game in town if you want to hear the composer's own thoughts on these works.
On the podium, Stravinsky knew what he wanted, although he might not always have known how to get it. His skills as a conductor of other composers' music received variable reviews. Fortunately, personality and persuasion buttressed the limitations in his stick technique, and his commercial recordings range from good to wonderful. Those under consideration here include some of his best work. The pairing of Stravinsky and Cleveland worked well. The Clevelanders had been under the direction of tense drillmaster George Szell since 1946, and Stravinsky's visits probably came as a genial respite. Standards of playing remained high, though, and as a result, these recordings are better played than the stereo remakes (with the CBC and Columbia Symphony Orchestras). The Fairy's Kiss is flushed with unwonted warmth – no cracks about "Tchaikovsky with wrong notes" here – and the Symphony in C runs like a newly wound watch. Pulcinella is done with a leanness that the composer couldn't recapture in his 1965 remake, although he had better vocalists to work with the second time around. L'Histoire du soldat is a showpiece for a six-man ensemble which includes David Oppenheim (clarinet), Alex[ander] Schneider (violin), and Julius Levine (double-bass), and the fascinating Octet adds flutist Julius Baker. It's a red-hot rendition, never surpassed, as far as I can tell.
Sony includes a three-minute bonus in the form of Stravinsky rehearsing the Orchestra in the Symphony. It's too short to tell us much, but the composer's Russian- and French-accented English rests nicely on the ears. The digital remastering flatters these recordings, which sounded good to begin with, and the Masterworks Heritage packaging continues to be an attractive feature for unrepentent LP collectors. I'd love for Sony to reissue Stravinsky's monaural Oedipus Rex (its cast includes tenor Peter Pears and speaker Jean Cocteau). For now, this unexpected collection is more than welcome.
Copyright © 1999, Raymond Tuttle