Igor Stravinsky was the first composer of major international stature to live far into the recording era -- he made records of his own works from the 1920s into the 1960s, well past that point in the 1940s when recording technology's grasp caught up with its reach, with the result that he left behind more than one significant interpretation of his most renowned works, captured variously on wax discs, mono magnetic tape, or in stereo. The rub was that Stravinsky started out with minimal training in conducting; he also had very little respect for the choices that other conductors made in dealing with his works; he had his own approach, tending toward the spare and austere but extremely precise, many of his own recordings revealing very personalized touches in the rhythm and timbre of his works. He might concede his own lack of broader experience as a conductor, or his obvious limitations had he been asked to deal with the works of other composers; but he would just as quickly, and far more loudly (and justifiably) claim through his concerts of his own music many dozens of times more experience than any other conductor could possibly have amassed in dealing with his music; that didn't mean he occasionally didn't run into trouble, getting some of the more complex tempo shifts indicated in his scores out of an orchestra, but at their best his recordings revealed small yet noticeable details of performances that were unheard or never emphasized in the performances of other conductors. He was also lucky enough to reach the era of magnetic tape recording, beginning in the late second half of the 1940s (which allowed for genuinely noise-free recording as well as instant playback and editing), while in his prime, and into the stereo era (1957 onward) while still fully active; and also to find as a collaborator in the early '50s Robert Craft, one conductor whom he respected and with whom he could work. With Craft working as a backup and performance collaborator from the 1950s onward, Stravinsky's late recordings took on a special luster, but that didn't invalidate his earlier work in the studio -- if anything, it made the two bodies of recordings even more different from each other than would have resulted from the mere passage of time and advances in technology. The situation regarding the breadth of his recordings was further complicated by Stravinsky's interest in the business side of composing, and his need to protect and re-establish his copyrights over the decades -- he was always revising and re-editing his works in an effort to make those revisions (and their new copyrights, and the resulting royalties) the standard presentation of the work in question. What's more, because his reputation with the public never faded, but only grew -- the Firebird Ballet and The Rite of Spring were every bit as popular and respected in the 1960s as they'd been 50 years earlier, and his newer works had their followings -- the resulting recordings, across 40 years, only enhanced his celebrity. Stravinsky spent all but one year out of nearly four decades as a recording artist associated exclusively with Columbia Masterworks (now Sony Classical) and having him under contract was a point of immense corporate pride for Columbia.
That was then. In later years, Sony Classical has seemed not to be sure what to do with all of the recordings of Stravinsky that it has in its vaults. There was once a 22-CD box out at one time that contained all of the stereo recordings, but it was deleted -- the label has issued individual CDs with Stravinsky's late recordings of his key works, and at the very end of the twentieth century it issued the nine-disc box The Original Jacket Collection: Igor Stravinsky, which contains many of the highlights of his last decade of recordings as well as a sampling of his earlier monaural recordings, but it's hardly representative of the full-range of his legacy. The Andante set at hand is a triple-CD package (the first of three volumes) exploring Stravinsky's earlier recordings, between the early '30s and the early '50s, but mostly concentrated in the years 1940-1947. Thanks to the Andante label being based in Paris, it can utilize less restrictive European copyright laws -- which treat 50-year-old recordings as public domain -- to bring us recordings that Sony has not yet made available; the label is also able to include Le Baiser de la Fee in a 1947 recording, done for RCA Victor during the one brief interruption in the composer's relationship with Columbia.
The major highlight is the recording that Craft himself, in his notes for Sony's Original Jacket Collection box, describes as the best ever done of The Rite of Spring, the 1940 New York Philharmonic rendition under Stravinsky's -- it has its technical flaws, partly owing to the technology of the time, but overall it is a definitive reading of the piece as a performance, and it came after several days of frantic rehearsals and emendations of the score by the composer; ironically enough, this recording appeared in the same year that The Rite of Spring received a massive new wave of exposure, to a larger public than ever before, in Walt Disney's Fantasia, but in an edited and reshuffled version that Stravinsky objected to. There is also a sublimely beautiful performance of the Firebird ballet suite, in its seldom heard 1945 edition, recorded early in 1946 -- one will hear details in some of the playing, especially in the brass and wind parts, and moments of emphasis that are unique to Stravinsky's performance (and, thus, can be taken as authoritative); the Petrushka suite in its short 1910-1911 edition; and the 1934 English-language version of Les Noces, which sounds great in the singing but not as much in the playing; plus two 1930s recordings of Stravinsky at the piano, doing his Serenade in A major and Piano Rag-Music; and a highly abbreviated Pulcinella in a pair of Parisian recordings from 1928 and 1932. With the exceptions of the somewhat ragged brass at the end of The Rite of Spring and some difficult moments in the finale of L'histoire du Soldat, nothing here does less than honor the work at hand, and almost all of it speaks well for Stravinsky the conductor. It's difficult to fathom why one performance, of the Concerto for piano and winds, is present, as it isn't very good and also lacks the presence of the composer, conducted as it is by Fernand Oubradous. But that lapse can be forgiven by the rarity of everything else -- only one performance represented here, the four-minute-long Feu d'Artifice (aka, Fireworks), has been issued by Sony Classical by 2006.
The sources and transfers are somewhat less satisfying than the music or performance. Andante apparently used a single set of 78s as a source for this set, digitizing them with the CAP 440 digital remastering system; the results are generally impressive, a fact that, in the case of the 1940s New York Philharmonic recordings, can be taken as a tribute to the acoustics of Carnegie Hall, where they were done; but there are also some flaws in the source discs that occasionally lead to slight rumble and other extraneous noise (as on the opening of The Rite of Spring). On the plus side, when the transfers work well, which is most of the time, there is little of the boxiness that one usually gets from 78 transfers, and the volume pumps up nicely without any serious distortion beyond the limitations in the original technology involved. Equally important, the makers have taken pains to adjust the pitches in mastering these sides. The packaging, as with other Andante releases, is very opulent, with extensive annotation by Tim Page and Robert Craft (who admits that a broadcast performance of The Rite of Spring, made three days after the recordings presented here, was a revelatory moment in his life, at age 13). The whole set, even allowing for a few technical flaws and lapses, is quite remarkable and at times overpowering -- Stravinsky's dry and precise approach to his music is beguiling on its own terms. Additionally, the man represented here is the younger Stravinsky, still a very active and bold, forward-looking presence, somewhat different and more exciting than the older, more avuncular 70-year-old who made the stereo recordings of the late '50s and 1960s. In that regard, this is the perfect companion piece to the Sony Original Jacket Collection on Stravinsky.