CLASSCOL

No composer, of this or any other era, enjoyed a longer, or more beneficial love affair with history’s muse than did Igor Stravinsky. As long ago as 1928, long before recording technology had advanced to where it could cope with the flamboyant orchestration of his early ballet scores, Stravinsky was in the studios of American and European Columbia, setting onto 78-rpm masters his own versions of “The Firebird” and “Petrouchka.” Long before the worldwide arguments had been settled on the relative sanity of his “Rite of Spring,” Stravinsky had entrusted to disc his views on that innovative blockbuster as well. And now Sony Classical, the corporate heir of Columbia, has issued its own blockbuster, 22 compact discs in one distinguished plastic box, containing Igor Stravinsky’s recorded legacy, his own recordings, or recordings made under his intimidating, critical eye, of nearly every work of consequence from his pen in the 61 years between the E-flat Symphony of 1905 and “The Owl and the Pussycat” of 1966. There are no surprises here. Every performance, even the half-hour of rehearsal takes and a chat with the composer and producer John McClure, has seen the light of day on previous issues, including the 31-LP blockbuster that Columbia had brought forth in 1982 for the centennial. The only Stravinsky anniversary that might occasion this new release is the current 20th anniversary of his death; you can be sure that 1996 will bring more widespread celebrations (including, of course, yet another reissue on the medium of choice at that time). What occasions this latest issue is the passion for the boxed set that currently sweeps both the pop and classical record market. If Mozart can rate the 180-disc whammo from Philips, can Stravinsky be far behind? The asking price for the Stravinsky package is $333. If Sony has immediate plans to issue the discs separately, nobody there is talking. You can bet it won’t be anytime this side of Christmas. Therein lie problems. There is no question of documentary value in a disc release of one of the most influential composers of our time involved in performances of more than 60 of his scores — lacking, in fact, only a few meagre scraps and arrangements that failed to engage the master’s hand. Would that we had similar documentary packages for other composers of this and past centuries! Of the musical values therein contained, more must be said. With few exceptions, the recordings now at hand date from the 1960s, when Stravinsky had moved to Hollywood and was lured back to the recording studios for a virtual remake of his entire repertory. He was then in his 80s, and increasingly dependent on Robert Craft for help even with performances that were issued under his own name. Most recordings were made with pickup studio orchestras under names like The Columbia Symphony Orchestra; they stood in for previous recordings made with earlier technology, but at least with genuine ensembles: the New York Philharmonic most notably. Even the generous Carlo Maria Giulini, not known for raising his hand against a colleague, said in a 70s interview that “even if Stravinsky were his own worst enemy, he couldn’t have done better to destroy himself” than by conducting his own music at that time. Whatever qualities Stravinsky might have had as a conductor in younger days, they are much diminished in these late products of his work on the podium. Like Toscanini, he lives in recorded history only by the deeds of his dotage. Unlike Toscanini, however, many earlier Stravinsky performances still linger — on collectors’ shelves or even, now and then, on compact disc reissues — to shame the new versions. Where is the diabolical eloquence in the dry-as-dust 1960 “Rite of Spring” to match the 1939 New York Philharmonic performance? Where, the wit in the 1960 “Petrouchka” to match the crackle in the 1928 version, still surprisingly vivid in a compact-disc reissue on England’s Pearl label? Where, the sardonic splendor of Jean Cocteau. reading his own text for “Oedipus Rex” in a 1950 Stravinsky-led performance from Cologne, no way challenged by the pomposity of John Westbrook in 1961? It all comes down to this. Even if someone didn’t already own a single disc of Stravinsky and wanted the composer whole, I could not recommend this package. There are too many superior alternatives: Esa-Pekka Salonen’s growing Stravinsky series (also on Sony Classical, apparently a label adept at shooting itself in the foot), Charles Dutoit’s glistening readings of the early ballets and “The Rake’s Progress” under Riccardo Chailly, both on London, Leonard Bernstein’s “Les Noces” on Deutsche Grammophon…and the list goes on. Like those boxed complete book editions your grandpa used to display with pride (but never opened), the new Stravinsky box seems fated to sit handsomely on a shelf gathering dust. At least the books came in handy for pressing flowers. The Stravinsky — box, booklets ‘n’ all — comes to a mere seven pounds: a lightweight in more ways than one. line
Tell me about there being no worthwhile music in Los Angeles! This week we have the finest of all American (arguably, world) orchestras, the Cleveland, with concerts at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Tuesday and Wednesday, and at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Saturday. But Saturday is also the night for terrific programs by the Pasadena Symphony at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and the Long Beach Symphony at Long Beach’s Terrace Theater. Stuck in among these other not-to-be-missed events, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra offers Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings,” as beautiful a work as this century has produced, Friday night at Royce Hall and Saturday night at Ambassador Auditorium. Atop all this the Los Angeles Philharmonic, still under the beloved Kurt Sanderling, welcomes the exquisite pianist Mitsuko Uchida, Thursday and Saturday nights at the Music Center. All this, and the Vienna Choir Boys, too: Saturday matinee at CalTech’s Beckman Auditorium. Some week!