Music & Arts' Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky: Concert Performances 1951-1957 literally picks up where the previous release of this kind -- Igor Stravinsky Conducts His Own Works -- left off. Taken from radio tapes of concerts, primarily of German origin, these performances are lovingly restored by expert transfer engineer Maggi Payne. The entire first disc is devoted to Stravinsky's appearance with the South German Radio Orchestra in April 1955; the second begins with an incomplete Petrushka with the same orchestra in October 1951, Agon with them again in 1957, and finally a Pulcinella Suite with the Orchestra della Radio Svizzera Italiana in Lugarno, Switzerland, in 1954. Stravinsky's own shortcomings as a conductor -- which helps make his commercial recorded output for CBS Records the jumble that it is -- is well noted, and Frederick J. Maroth's excellently well-considered liner notes are not only up front about that, but addresses in some detail about the effect of Stravinsky's weaknesses on musicians in various places. With the live recordings of Stravinsky, the quality of the legacy is similarly uneven. However, sometimes he rises to the occasion, and Stravinsky does tend to accentuate details in his own music that no one else seems to favor. There are many other reasons why these live Stravinsky recordings are historically valuable, with certain performances being even preferable to the CBS studio recordings, though not so in every case.
This set concentrates on Stravinsky's work with the South German Radio Orchestra, normally led by Hans Rosbaud, who was sympathetic to Stravinsky's music and performed it often; this orchestra was usually well prepared in a given piece even before Stravinsky arrived to lead it himself. The Violin Concerto, which opens the first disc, however, doesn't really get off the ground; it lacks a strong soloist and Stravinsky seems not ready for prime time. However, the remainder of the disc -- from Le baiser de la Fee on -- is very satisfying; Stravinsky seems growingly determined to deliver the goods, and these are driven, spontaneous readings, which in the Four Etudes for Orchestra is an especially positive contributing factor.
The second disc opens with a 1951 Petrushka that is missing its opening. This is a pity, as this is clearly Stravinsky's most successful recording of Petrushka, a work he had little success with in the studio. In this reading, Stravinsky emphasizes the rhythm of the piece more than anything else, sacrificing some measure of color in favor of weight and employing an unmistakably Slavic accent -- it is fairly like Igor Markevitch's foreshortened Petrushka for EMI in terms of energy and drive. One work Stravinsky never seemed to have much trouble conducting was his last ballet, Agon. Here, it's an interesting tug of war; the German orchestra keeps pulling the piece into the twelve-tone idiom of Webern -- at least the way Webern was played in the 1950s -- whereas Stravinsky keeps trying to win them back to his own, more Dadaistic conception of the work, and the tension generated by this conflict is incredible. The concluding Pulcinella with the Orchestra della Radio Svizzera Italiana is a genuine delight. This genuinely Italian-styled reading lifts the piece out of its neo-classical moorings into something that almost sounds like the eighteenth century music that Stravinsky was seeking to imitate, albeit delivered in the manner in which European orchestras typically interpreted such music in this pre-period conscious era.
The mono German radio recordings are sonically constricted to some extent, though the sound is consistently clear, and in the Petrushka fragment, strikingly powerful. The Pulcinella Suite with the Orchestra della Radio Svizzera Italiana is in excellent sound for the time.