Top Ear

Stravinsky’s Piano Works: Weird and Wonderful

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Jeremy Lee writes

Normally, if you come across an album of Stravinsky’s piano music, you’d probably only care for the infamously difficult Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka and not listen to the rest–it’s probably fair to say it’s the only famous piano work by Stravinsky. For me as a newbie, however, randomly borrowing albums from the library shelf was the only way to pick and choose my way through the colourful and variegated world of classical music, and when I stumbled across this one I heard all the tracks and was immediately captivated. This particular album was one of the very first I ever heard, and if I’d never heard it I wouldn’t be writing here–these very discs sparked my life interest in classical music.

How are the pieces like? Well, nothing much needs to be said about the Petrouchka movements that start the second CD, and pianist Michel Béroff plays it well, oblivious to the technical demands of the piece, though it is quite heavy handed sometimes and cannot be considered as a reference rendition–Yuja Wang and Maurizio Polini play it much better. Following it is the Cubist, angular Piano-Rag-Music and a perfectly conventional D minor Tango from Stravinsky’s early period.

The set also presents us with three of his works for piano and orchestra, featuring Seiji Ozawa and the Orchestre de Paris. The first one, a lively and catchy Capriccio (which is a piano concerto in all but name), is followed by the more commonly heard Concerto for Piano and Winds, and the colour, counterpoint and rhythmic devices galore in the first movement Toccata along with some really attractive parts in the following movements makes it my favourite of the three. Both the Capriccio and Concerto are largely tonal, and for a glimpse of its musical language, hear Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Lastly is the Mouvements, a totally serialist work reminiscent of Schoenberg and to some extent Bartók’ Piano Concerto No. 1. Both Ozawa and Béroff relish the pieces with absolute clarity and confidence.

CD1 starts with the early Sonata in F sharp minor from 1910 which Stravinsky eventually rejected, and although it’s has more in common with the Russian Romanticism of Lyadov and Lyapunov and so on than Stravinsky’s “stereotypical” language he was to develop later on, it’s a fascinatingly strong piece, with a powerful first movement and a lovely scherzo. The final movement in particular contains those kind of melodies that make you ask yourself, “Why hasn’t anybody thought of that before?” A separate scherzo in G minor follows the Sonata, and is in turn succeeded by another early work, the 4 Etudes Op. 7, whose language brings to mind that of Lyapunov in the Transcendental Etudes, Busoni, Scriabin, Godovsky, Reger and even Sorabji. Next are a few miniatures, a march, a waltz and a set of eight easy pieces called “The Five Fingers”. Penultimately we have another sonata, this time from Stravinsky’s later period, and the work is angular and jazzy with a really “cool” slow movement. The dense and difficult Serenade in A concludes the disc. Béroff’s excellent facility and rhythmic sense allows him to highlight all the counterpoint clearly no matter how unwieldily the pianistic terrain becomes, and he delivers a persuasive and virtuosic performance throughout.

The sonics aren’t very good, with the distinctive EMI piano tone flatness throughout, but it’s perfectly listenable. The set is on EMI Gemini at a very modest price, and if I were you I would get it without hesitation to explore the weird and wonderful world that Stravinsky creates in his piano music. Essential for 20th century piano music lovers.

Details

  • Album name:  Stravinsky:  Works for piano
  • Performers:  Michel Béroff (piano); Seiji Ozawa (conductor); Orchestre de Paris
  • Label:  EMI Gemini 7243 5 86073 2 1
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD
  • Total playing time:  135:56
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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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