About this Recording
8.570377 - STRAVINSKY: Music for Piano Solo
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Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Piano Music

 

It is a remarkable achievement for a composer whose chief instrument was the piano to score so imaginatively and, in respect of his early Russian period, so ambitiously and colourfully for a large orchestra. While possessing no ability to play an orchestral instrument, except when he acquired a cimbalom in 1915 for inclusion in Renard and a drum set a few years later for its rôle in The Soldier's Tale, the piano was the medium through which Stravinsky channeled his creative energies, and from which he drew, often stimulated by the instrument's inherent percussive sounds, original textures and rich sonorities. For Stravinsky the piano was a vital compositional aid, a sort of crucible for refining ideas where, in an observation to Robert Craft, 'Each note that I write is tried on it and every relationship of notes is taken apart and heard on it again and again'.

Composing at the piano was a life-long preoccupation for Stravinsky, whose music for the instrument spanned a forty-year period, and reflected his distinct stylistic changes, his associated domestic and financial status and the geo-political situations in which he lived. Thus, prior to his trilogy of pre-war Russian ballets, his piano music up to 1908 might be regarded largely as imitative and can be viewed very much through the lens of other composers. It was as a twenty-year-old law student at St Petersburg University that Stravinsky first showed his earliest piano pieces to Rimsky-Korsakov - whose son Vladimir was there also as a law student. In the agitated rhythms of the modest ternary form Scherzo in G minor of 1902 Stravinsky shows considerable promise and, in its harmonic vocabulary, a debt to Tchaikovsky.

A year later Stravinsky began his ambitious four-movement Piano Sonata in F sharp minor, turning again to Rimsky-Korsakov for help when his inexperience of large-scale structures led him into difficulties with its formal organization. Here, Tchaikovsky and also Glazunov are influences although Stravinsky recalls of this early sonata in later years that it was 'an inept imitation of Beethoven'. Possibly this first effort points more to a composer attempting to use traditional Germanic models for his own ends, rather than any direct borrowing of Beethoven. While there are, of course, no specific traces of Beethoven, one can hear in the sonata's outer movements a dramatic weight and, if a little uncharitably, a certain failure to foreshorten over-used material. It is, however, in the infectious Vivo and elegant charm of the Andante (with its echoes of Rachmaninov) that supporters of this posthumously published work will be found.

Four years passed before Stravinsky wrote for the piano again, and in his Quatre Etudes of 1908 there is a strikingly different influence. Noticeable now, particularly in the first two studies, is the voice of Scriabin (handed down from Chopin) where the use of complex rhythmical patterns between the hands; 2 or 3 against 5 and 4 or 5 against 6 and extensive chromaticism makes for fiendishly difficult execution. A poetic languor, more akin to Rachmaninov, characterizes the third study, while the harmonic drive and irrepressible energy of the fourth creates a superb moto perpetuo that is all his own. The insistent rhythms of this tour de force are perhaps the first indicator of a percussive manner that was to dominate his style for the next few years, and heard in Petrushka and the third of the pre-war ballets, The Rite of Spring.

While the war years produced only a handful of miniature piano works, it was with larger projects such as Renard, Les Noces (its scoring revised in 1921 for an 'orchestra' of four pianos and percussion) and The Soldier's Tale that occupied Stravinsky during this period when he was living a precarious existence with his young family in Switzerland. Piano-Rag-Music dates from 1919 and began life soon after the completion of The Soldier's Tale. This short work reflects his interest in jazz, which had found expression in the earlier stage work and his instrumental Ragtime, an ensemble piece for eleven players completed the previous year. In its deconstruction of ragtime, where fragments of the jazz style are broken up and distorted in a grotesque Cubist image, Piano-Rag-Music also mirrors contemporary trends in art and the work of Picasso. The score is dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein as recognition of the pianist's financial help when Stravinsky was in difficult circumstances and whose 'strong, agile, clever fingers' came to mind when writing the piece.

After the war the piano developed a wider significance for Stravinsky and reflected both his new musical direction with its focus on classical transparency of line and texture and his unsettled financial affairs, made uncertain by his status as a Russian exile living in Switzerland and from 1920 in France. Thus he created opportunities for additional income by the performance of his own works and both the 1924 Sonata and Serenade in A of the following year were written for himself to play and became part of his new subsidiary performing career. From the same period date his Concerto for Piano and Wind and his Capriccio for piano and orchestra of 1929, both of which Stravinsky reserved exclusive performance rights for himself.

The Sonata was written in Biarritz and Nice and dedicated to the celebrated patron of the arts the Princess Edmond de Polignac. In the clarity of each of its three movements the musical language of the eighteenth century is recalled. In the opening movement's two-part texture, with its recurring thirds in the right hand and substitute Alberti bass in the left, the sound world of Clementi and Haydn is evoked. By contrast the elegiac lyricism and ornamentation of the Adagietto has superficial echoes of Bach, whose spirit in the third movement is recalled by an agile and quirky two-part invention.

Between the completion of this Sonata in October 1924 and the Serenade in A Stravinsky embarked on two groundbreaking tours; a first visit for ten years to Warsaw and then, early the following year, to the United States, where he signed his first recording contract for Brunswick. It was for this company that he wrote the Serenade, designing each movement to fit neatly on one side of a 78rpm gramophone record. Like the Sonata the transparent textures recapture the spirit rather than the letter of Classicism. A dignified 'choral' Hymne (that Poulenc appears to 'pirate' for his own Hymne - the second of his Trois Pièces written a few years later) was envisaged by Stravinsky as being a 'solemn entry' before the 'ceremonial homage by the artist to the guests' depicted by the arioso style of the Romanza. Here guitar-like gestures embrace a central song. The Rondoletto, marked by almost constant semiquaver movement, provides an overview of eighteenth-century dance types linked to a cadenza finale where bell-like figuration creates a more formal and sober concluding Epilogue. The title of the work refers more towards its pull and focus towards the note A rather than the actual key of A with its major and minor implications.

Music for solo piano featured less prominently in later years and apart from his Tango and Circus Polka the instrument appears only within a number of orchestral works. Not long after leaving for the United States in September 1939 Stravinsky settled in California where, in 1940, he wrote his entertaining Tango. Conceived originally as a song, its halting rhythms and evocative mood convey something of the nostalgia that the composer must have experienced in his newly adopted country. Two years later he began his Circus Polka which, improbable as it may seem, was commissioned by Barnum and Bailey's circus. Thus Stravinsky's last work for solo piano was designed to be danced by young elephants in the unlikely form of a 'ballet'.

David Truslove

 


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