At the end of the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky's stock was riding high as critics of various kinds began to agree separately that he may have been the greatest composer of the Modern Era. However, even before that, critical appraisals of Stravinsky's work as a conductor took an about-face. During his lifetime, and even a little after, Stravinsky's reputation as a composer protected him, along with his suggestion that the interpretations of others be guided to some degree by his recordings. Over time, it became painfully clear that Stravinsky was often his own worst enemy as a conductor. This has led to the dismissal, in some quarters, of Stravinsky's entire recorded output, the most extensive of any composer/performer born in the 1880s, and some of the strongest adherents of Stravinsky the composer are among the most violent detractors of the conductor. Into this fray springs Music & Arts with its modestly titled Stravinsky Conducts His Own Works, emblazoned with a splendid photograph of Stravinsky in action taken at the Hollywood Bowl in 1935. Given the climate that now surrounds Stravinsky's conducting activity, is there any way this disc has a chance?
There's no good reason why it shouldn't. It consists of two German concerts from 1951 and 1954, respectively, and the 1951 concert from Cologne was once issued on a mono Columbia LP with the German narration in Oedipus Rex replaced by a French one recited by librettist Jean Cocteau. These are sturdy and reliable performances, and were well received in their day, with a good cast for Oedipus Rex featuring Peter Pears and Martha Mödl, although the reading of Apollon musagète is a little flaccid compared to the scintillating recording Stravinsky led in 1950 for RCA Victor. The second disc in the set is of a 1954 concert with the Southwest German Radio Orchestra in which Stravinsky appeared by the invitation of its conductor, Hans Rosbaud -- it has never been issued in any form before. The Symphonies of Wind Instruments, newly revised in 1954, starts off like a train wreck, but gets better as it goes along; this interpretation is shaped in a similar fashion to his Columbia Masterworks recording of that time, one of his best. The Capriccio for piano and orchestra is well done, with SWF "house pianist" Maria Bergmann doing a better job with the solo part than Stravinsky himself did in his studio recording with the Concerts Straram in 1931. Jeu de cartes is rather sloppy and bumbling here, but the Symphony in Three Movements does catch fire, and once again Bergmann is an asset in the all-important piano part.
Stravinsky's idea of producing recordings that would act as an example for future interpreters was probably wishful thinking on his part, given his limitations as a conductor. At least in the studio one could paste together various takes of his performances to achieve a satisfactory result, or employ a second conductor, such as Robert Craft, to record sections that Stravinsky could not get right. In these live situations, there was no net for Stravinsky, and while he does not get the miraculous results of a modern conductor such as Josep Pons or Michael Tilson Thomas, these concerts are nonetheless revelatory and personable. In attempting to judge the past using the perspective of the present, we often find ourselves at risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. These recordings may not be for everyone who likes Stravinsky's music, but for those who are interested in Stravinsky beyond the aegis of his compositions, Stravinsky Conducts His Own Works should be self-recommending.