Classical CD Reviews

STRAVINSKY: ‘Complete Music for Piano & Orchestra’ = Song of the Volga Boatmen; Concerto for piano and wind instruments; Capriccio for piano and orch.; Movements for piano and orch.; Concerto in D; Canon – Steven Osborne, piano/BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./Ilan Volkov – Hyperion

Stellar collection and a couple of surprises.

Published on June 27, 2013

IGOR STRAVINSKY: ‘Complete Music for Piano & Orchestra’ = Song of the Volga Boatmen; Concerto for piano and wind instruments; Capriccio for piano and orch.; Movements for piano and orch.; Concerto in D for string orch.; Canon (on a Russian popular tune) – Steven Osborne, piano/BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./Ilan Volkov – Hyperion CDA67870, 60:17 (6/11/13) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Kudos to Hyperion and to Maestro Volkov for putting together this highly attractive set of Stravinsky’s works for (mostly) piano and orchestra. The works herein are acknowledged masterpieces in some cases, such as the Concerto for piano and winds or the Concerto in D for strings. However, there are also a couple of real lesser known oddities such as the two brief settings of popular songs, such as those of the “Volga Boatmen” or the Canon on a Russian Popular Tune.

These two works provide the most intrigue in this fascinating collection. The arrangement of the folk classic “Song of the Volga Boatmen” was written quickly in a fervent reaction to the Russian revolution and its inclusion here is due in large part to the fact that Stravinsky actually intended that this piece could be performed by a solo pianist as well—providing a piano reduction of the score right underneath the published orchestration.

The “Russian popular tune” referenced in the Canon work included here is the same folk melody that Stravinsky used as the “coronation” melody in his ballet The Firebird. There is piano in the orchestration of this very short oddity and this was intended as a canon in memory of the conductor and supporter of the composer, Pierre Monteux.

The last point of curiosity for me was the inclusion of the iconic Concerto in D for string orchestra (sometimes referred to as the Basle Concerto, after the chamber orchestra for which it was intended) I can find no direct or indirect connection to Stravinsky’s piano writing (nor in the booklet notes) and this is the work on this disc that I – and probably many – knew the best going in. Written at a time when the composer was acclimating culturally and in every other way to Los Angeles, this three-movement masterpiece is full of neo-classical writing and holds many of the trademarks of Stravinsky’s “middle period” characterized by sudden silences and a dramatic use of dissonance and consonance. It is a wonderful work and its inclusion in this collection makes no difference to me.

The three works for a true solo piano part and orchestra are the main reason to acquire this disc. The Concerto for piano and wind instruments was written in 1924 and has a lot in common with the French concertante style (at this time Stravinsky’s writing held a lot of fascination with late Baroque and early Classical forms). The first movement recapitulation contains a clever, jazz-inspired cadenza but the heart of the work, in my opinion, is the second movement, Largo, that contains beautiful long line melody and two separate cadenzas that have something in common with the Beethoven sonatas.

The Capriccio for piano and orchestra stems from 1928 and is, for all intents and purposes, his “second” piano concerto. There is a delicacy in this work that is reminiscent of some of the composer’s neo-classical ballets, Apollon Musagete and The Fairy’s Kiss. I am especially fond of the first movement Presto that contains ample keyboard flourishes but which are more “Bach” than “Beethoven” and the orchestration is appropriately light throughout. The second movement is fascinating in its use of rhythmic patterns (groups of nine, eleven and thirteen) that blur the pace and the pulse to make it sound very improvisatory.

The fairly brief Movements for piano and orchestra is the most unusual and complex in this collection in that it comes from 1959 at a time when Stravinsky was experimenting with serialism. Originally intended as a Concerto for piano and group of instruments the composer changed the title to reflect both the relatively contextual role of the piano as well as the use of several short connected sections. Listeners will have a hard time identifying this work as Stravinsky as it really does sound like something more along the lines of Webern or Krenek.

This is a very nice collection of important works, of both the familiar and the obscure. It also provides a very good look at each of the main compositional styles that Stravinsky utilized and is its own testimony to his genius. Soloist Steven Osborne is a highly skilled and sensitive pianist and the young conductor Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony play wonderfully.  I do not think these works have been available all on one disc before and this is well worth having!

—Daniel Coombs




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