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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 25, No. 7. 1962.

Clarity at All Costs

page 4

Clarity at All Costs

A recording made by Stravinsky is much more than a recording: it is a document. As such the four 12 inch discs recently released by Philips deserve our attention for their historical value as much as for their excellent listening. "I regard my recordings as indispensable supplements to the printed score" says the master. Clarity in tempo and rhythmic articulation are the essential elements in a Stravinsky recording (they should be in all music), and with the maestro in control orchestra, choir, and chamber ensemble perform with a precision which they themselves cannot match under another guiding hand. Don't be put off by the Ace-of-Clubs look: the pressing inside are what's important. For the listener who is keen but knows little of the master's work, I would suggest that he buy all four, and play bits of each. The rest should buy all four anyway.

In the middle of last year there was an influx of American Columbia discs. Among them was the set of Stravinsky's new revised Firebird, Le Sacre, and Petrovshka. The imposing photograph which figured on this set is the same one which appears on the Philips releases. But the Philips Firebird and Le Sacre are not from this set. They are the re-issue of a much older version made in 1953. The two versions are so unlike, however, in mood and even in substance (Stravinsky has rewritten quite a bit of both in the later version) that neither can be substituted for the other. The Philips release, KLG 2786, is the composer's closest commentary on other interpretations.


A lot of guff is written in reviews of Stravinsky. A model of clarity, he would probably resent it as much as I do. Much is made of the "frenetic rhythms" of Le Sacre with their "stark primitiveness." Rhythm is a feature of a lot of other music, too, but 1 found I did not understand what rhythm was, until I heard Le Sacre. Now I am beginning to hear it in Beethoven and Haydn, given a good performance.

What gives Le Sacre its kick, though, is the unequal repetition of strong rhythmic figures, giving a passage a deliberate discontinuity. Stravinsky will repeat a striking figure on the spot in all sorts of ways; some longer than the first, others shorter. Then when all its possibilities of expression and syncopation seem to be exhausted, off we go again. If a progression leads somehow to a tremendous crashing chord, just hold your breath and the music will run past and turn about and charge at it from another direction. If the opening of the second half of Le Sacre sounds to you (as it does to me) the purest and deepest expression of a D minor triad, don't lift back the pickup arm to play it again: the repeat is built in. Besides its climaxes of gradually-accumulated power, Le Sacre has moments of great lyricism and calm. It is far from the continuous full-scale bombardment it is sometimes made out to be. In an otherwise flawless performance, I noticed one quiet mis-entry from a bass clarinet who sounded suitably chastened thereafter.

Better "firebird"

The 1919 Suite From Firebird always seemed too short for me (and Lord knows I'm short enough), and when as last year only the Lullaby and Finale are played the effect of disproportion is overwhelming. Stravinsky's 1919 revision to a certain extent restores the balance between the Finale and the rest, and the work in this form fills a 12 inch side rather than serving as the filler-in which the old version so frequently appears as. Again the stimulating precision that we experienced live last year is captured on a record of sustained brilliance. With the grooves somehow closer together what filled two LP's now goes on one: it is therefore what Sellars and Yeatman would call, A Good Buy'.

Beethoven's Tenth

No, not Brahms (heaven forbid!) but the master's Symphony in C, which is the nearest to Beethoven he has come. It uses a Beethoven-sized orchestra and bears more than a few technical relations to his predecessor. But it sounds like Stravinsky and is in fact much cooler than we expect Beethoven to be. I know of one other version of this work available in New Zealand: that of Ansermet, but I haven't heard it. But why I shouldn't be able to compare it with a Nat. Orch. performance I do not know, for it is well within their reach and a delight to listen to. Ah well, give Mr Hopkins his due, he has such a backlog of 20th century music to catch up. To the Philips recording, KLC 2787, one must turn in the meantime. The Cleveland Orchestra plays it cool and classical till the finale , when Stravinsky's extraordinary imagination brings forth some very low-register bassoon passages, punctuated by brass chords pianissimo which are so deep that one strains down with one's whole body to accommodate them. The whole finale has a soul-searching sombreness which would be romantic (in which case unique) if it were not so restrained.