Tilson Thomas and a Bounty of Stravinsky

<i> Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar. </i>

Michael Tilson Thomas is on a roll, with his recent Grammy-nominated recording of Debussy’s “Martyre de St. Sebastian” followed this month by a no less impressive Stravinsky outing, again with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The program comprises the two mature orchestral symphonies as well as the sublime--particularly when treated with the combination of intensity and structural comprehension evidenced here--Symphony of Psalms (Sony 53275).

The Symphony in C, which can in less dedicated hands seem little more than cerebral noodling, is shown in all its faceted quirkiness by the conductor and a willing (if occasionally scrappy) orchestra intent on exploring its subtleties of texture and rhythm.

The more dramatic Symphony in Three Movements needs no such goading to make its effect. But again, Tilson Thomas maintains its overall tautness superbly and refuses to allow its many explosions to degenerate into mere raucousness.


By contrast, the two orchestral symphonies and the brief Symphonies of Wind Instruments are drained of both color and momentum in slack readings by the Berlin Radio Symphony under the direction of Vladimir Ashkenazy (London 436 416).

And we descend another step qualitatively in performances of all the foregoing and more in an interesting concept that, alas, misfired: an attempted revival of the glory days of Geneva’s Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and its founder-conductor, Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969).


To celebrate the orchestra’s 75th anniversary last year, Neeme Jarvi was invited to lead them in a dozen works by Stravinsky associated with Ansermet, long one of the composer’s closest associates and most sympathetic interpreters.

In addition to the symphonies, the agenda included “Oedipus Rex,” “Petrushka,” the Violin Concerto (Lydia Mordkovitch, well below her best form), the two large-scale pieces for piano and orchestra (Boris Berman is the excellent pianist) and “Le chant du rossignol.”

The result was a series of live performances and this five-disc set (Chandos 9240), which will have been broken down to single CDs by the time these words appear.

It is hardly worth going into detail over the performances, which are in the main perfunctory and unengaging. But it is worth noting, and lamenting, that Jarvi fails to take advantage of the skills of the players at his disposal, a far more accomplished ensemble than Ansermet ever had.


Ansermet was keenly aware of his players’ shortcomings, the result of Swiss labor restrictions that made the importing of musicians who could have solved his problems all but impossible. Ansermet soldiered on, if not unperturbed then resigned, to produce some of the great recorded interpretations of the century. Difficult to believe when faced with the dispiriting material offered here by Chandos.

In a striking turnaround--and if one wishes to view it as such, a worthy Ansermet tribute--Jarvi leads first-chair players of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in the complete “Histoire du Soldat,” whose first performance was led by Ansermet in 1917 (Chandos 9189).

Jarvi propels the action with bracingly edgy wit, and the text of Ferdinand Ramuz, here in the delectably British performing edition by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black, becomes an alternately hilarious and chilling tour de force as delivered by Danish basso Aage Haugland, who takes all three speaking roles himself, proving in the process to be at least as fine an actor as he is a singer.


Reissues of note: The raw, juggernaut performance of “Le Sacre du Printemps” by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (vastly superior to Bernstein’s later recorded versions with the London Symphony and Israel Philharmonic) in the company of a colorful “Petrushka” by the same forces (Sony 47629, mid-price). And there’s the handsome 1964, composer-led edition of Stravinsky’s only full-length opera, the elusive, infinitely clever “The Rake’s Progress,” with its superb trio of principals: Alexander Young as Tom, Judith Raskin as Anne, and John Reardon as Nick Shadow (Sony 46299, two CDs).