Stravinsky for the '80s

The Symphony in Three Movements, which Stravinsky completed in 1945, would seem to be that composer's final addition to the large-orchestra repertory. During the 1980s it has become the most frequently performed and recorded of his works after the three pre-World War I ballets and, inevitably, a crowd pleaser in live performance.

While there have been several very fine recordings of the Symphony in Three Movements during the past decade, none catches both the work's dynamism and its crystalline orchestration quite as effectively as the brand new one by James Conlon and his razor-sharp, bright-toned Rotterdam Philharmonic (Erato 88249, CD).

The reasons for the symphony's growing popularity are not difficult to discern. Above all, the Symphony in Three Movements, more so than any other of the composer's late works, harks back to the crunching, stomping rhythmicality of "Le Sacre du Printemps."

Although Stravinsky at one time discussed a programmatic origin for the first movement, it and the remainder of the tough-minded, 22-minute-long symphony are best viewed as absolute music, music about rhythm and about timbral contrasts.

The discmate on the new recording is equally praiseworthy: a reading by the same agile forces of Stravinsky's "Jeu de Cartes" ballet score (in its CD debut), which shares the symphony's taut rhythmicality but relies on the dry (to some ears, sour) humor of a younger, more classically oriented composer.

Whereas Conlon's interpretation of the symphony is quintessentially modern in its fleet propulsiveness, the same notes filtered through the sensibilities of Soviet conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky sound rooted in the past. While Conlon revels in the jagged rhythms of the outer movements, Rozhdestvensky softens their edges and concentrates his energies on a painstaking analysis of the slow movement--apparently with a view toward exposing some imagined vein of lyricism.

Rozhdestvensky's effort is ultimately too mild-mannered to make the symphony the thriller it was intended to be. The coupling (on Nimbus 5088, CD) is the complete 1911 original version of "Petrushka," and while rather scrappily played by the London Symphony, Rozhdestvensky's loving, curvaceously balletic way with the score is entirely apt.

During the early 1960s, Colin Davis gave us a stunningly dramatic recording with the London Symphony of the Symphony in Three Movements in the common pairing with the more brilliant (and lightweight) Symphony in C. Now, as Sir Colin, Davis returns to give us an update of the same material, this time with the Bavarian Radio Symphony (Philips 416 985, CD).

The second time around, music that should--and did, in Davis' 1960s version--fly, float and sting, lumbers, sags and, ultimately, collapses of its own weight.

Another Stravinsky composition that has grown considerably in frequency of performance of late is his once-unclassifiable "L'Histoire du Soldat"--a combination of instrumental music, mime, dance and the spoken/acted word intended for presentation on the shoestring budgets dictated by the exigencies of the First World War. Its mixed-media format is only now finding its audience, and with its small forces--on stage, a dozen performers at most, on recordings fewer--it is proving a most handy piece for our own era of budgetary stringency in the arts.

Last year, Nimbus Records released an appealing, rock-bottom budget edition (as regards number of performers involved) employing an English vernacular text for a single actor-narrator in the person of horror-film favorite Christopher Lee, who took to it like Dracula to a blood bank.

In a new CD edition (Erato 88198) of the 1971 recording which brought the name of conductor Charles Dutoit to the world's attention, the original complement of three actors delivers Ramuz's French text with terrific point and pungency: Gerard Carrat is the Narrator, Francois Simon the Devil, and Francois Berthet the Soldier.

Dutoit's leadership of a group of superb Swiss instrumentalists has irresistible vigor and bite and the generously packed CD adds to the nearly hour-long "Histoire" the 16 delectably nasty minutes of "Renard," Stravinsky's contemporaneous barnyard opera, again led by Dutoit and with a strong cast of singing actors headed by tenor Eric Tappy.

Alas, Erato fails to supply texts for either work.

Until this month, Daniel Barenboim may well have been the only star conductor of symphony orchestras not to have recorded "Le Sacre du printemps." That oversight now rectified with minimal enthusiasm and distinction (on Erato 75360, CD) by Barenboim and the Orchestre de Paris, one might note that "Sacre" is for once not coupled with "Petrouchka" or, for that matter, with any work of Stravinsky's, but with the "Poeme de l'extase" of Alexander Scriabin.

Barenboim seems to have withheld his enthusiasm from "Sacre" for the ear-blinding colors and woozy eroticism of the "Poeme." "The Poem of Ecstasy" is not only supersafe sex but great fun as well, with the Paris players executing its sweatily intense chromatic measures with seeming conviction and palpable skill.

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