, April 2008
Stravinsky didn’t write a great deal of piano music but he stayed faithful to the instrument, from the Tarantella of 1898 through to the Two Sketches for a Sonata (1967). This Naxos collection spans roughly four decades and gives the listener some idea of Stravinsky’s evolving musical character. The early works are heavily influenced by the likes of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, the neo-classical ones by his interest in 18th-century forms. And then there are the pieces from the last 30 years of his life, which are not represented here.
This recording originally appeared on the now defunct Collins label and Naxos must be commended for returning it to the catalogue. The Italian-born pianist Victor Sangiorgio, who grew up in Perth, Western Australia, is a commanding performer, he seems keenly attuned to the many moods of this music, from the frothy little Scherzo of 1902 to the more technically demanding Serenade and Piano Sonata Stravinsky wrote for himself in the 1920s.
The forceful opening of the F sharp minor Sonata of 1903-04 sounds remarkably like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov at their most imperious. That said there is a startling clarity to the writing, which Sangiorgio captures very well indeed. He is helped in no small measure by the lucid recording, which brings out inner detail and articulation without ever sounding harsh or brittle.
The Scherzo benefits enormously from this acoustic, the cascading figures so deftly – yet charmingly – rendered. The more elegiac Andante finds Stravinsky in uncharacteristically reflective mood, Sangiorgio’s playing suitably expansive, even rhapsodic, at times. Surely this movement is the most Beethovenian in structure and weight, even though the thematic material is somewhat overworked. No matter, this is a substantial, varied and vigorous piece that only loses its way in the overextended Allegro – Andante.
The Op. 7 Etudes of 1908 hark back to their 19th-century predecessors but they are distinguished by an economy of style, especially in the second Etude. There is a restless energy in the first and fourth Etudes, Sangiorgio bringing out the rhythms with considerable flair. And although there’s a Bachian flavour to the florid second and fourth studies they have just enough character and verve to avoid becoming tedious.
No time for tedium in the bare-boned little Piano-Rag-Music (1919). This is concentrated Stravinsky, the ‘ragged time’ element distilled down to its very essence, the tune glimpsed beneath broken chords and meandering melodies. The irregular rhythms may hint at Le Sacre but the music’s underlying jauntiness is artfully maintained throughout.
The neo-classical formality of the Piano Sonata (1924) is unmistakable, veering more towards the baroque in the filigreed writing of the second movement and the Bachian two-part invention of the third. How like a harpsichord Sangiorgio makes the Adagietto sound, delicate yet crisply projected and tastefully proportioned. This is no mere pastiche, but a highly-skilled and individual homage to an earlier musical era.
Next to the Sonata the Serenade seems a little more relaxed. The opening of ‘Hymn’ evokes the peal of bells and although the rest of the movement has a baroque cast it’s all filtered through the prism of Stravinsky’s own imagination. Ditto the Romanza, which is outwardly calm and unruffled yet rhythmically unsettled. Once again Sangiorgio’s playing is a model of precision and proportion, especially in the highly-ornamented Rondoletto and the free-flowing Cadenza. A lesser piece than the sonata, perhaps, but eminently satisfying nonetheless.
Dance was an essential part of Stravinsky’s musical make-up and some of the latert piano pieces – Tango (1940) and the Circus Polka (1941-42) – confirm that. Tango most resembles Piano-Rag-Music in its pared-downed structure, yet this and the polka are cleverly sustained by their distinctive dance rhythms. The latter, originally an orchestral piece written for Barnum & Bailey, even has a modicum of humour in its awkward, tramping gait. Sangiorgio plays this a little faster than usual but it’s a showpiece in its own quirky way.