About this Recording
8.570985 - STRAVINSKY, I.: Violin and Piano Works - Suite italienne / Divertimento / Duo Concertant (Huebl, Wait)

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
Suite italienne • Divertimento • Duo Concertant


Stravinsky’s output of chamber music, while not insubstantial, hardly reflects his evolution as a composer to the extent of other genres, the stage-works in particular. Yet the Three Pieces and the Concertino (1914 and 1920) [both on Naxos 8.554315] are significant pieces for the development of the string quartet whatever their brevity, while both the Octet for wind instruments (1923) [8.557507] and the Septet for mixed ensemble (1953) are important in heralding the advent of his neoclassical and serial phases respectively. In terms of medium, that for violin and piano comprises the largest number of works, though, with one major exception, they are arrangements or transcriptions from larger works. The present disc features the most notable of these.

The main reason for Stravinsky’s interest in this duo combination was out of pragmatic, indeed commercial considerations. Although commissions were still forthcoming in the period following the First World War, the need to support his family as well as the inaccessibility of his Russian estate led him into the rôle of an active musician. In subsequent years this saw a greater focus on conducting but, over the course of a decade from the mid-1920s, the composer sustained a secondary career as pianist. Never a virtuoso as was his contemporary Bartók, his agile pianism is evident from the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1924) and Capriccio for piano and orchestra (1929). Although he demonstrated unexpected affinity for the string orchestra in his ballet Apollon Musagète (1928) [8.557502], Stravinsky was unlikely to have written a string concerto had it not been for his publisher having introduced him to the Polish/American violinist Samuel Dushkin (1891–1976).

Himself an able if far from virtuosic musician, Dushkin proved an adaptable as well as willing collaborator, he and Stravinsky working intensively on the Violin Concerto [8.557508] of which they gave the première in Berlin during October 1931. The success of this encouraged the composer to seek a longer term partnership, not least when his concert engagements as a solo pianist were limited and his orchestral appearances diminishing on account of the gathering economic depression. Although a reduction of the concerto was prepared and a new work for the medium underway, these were insufficient for an evening-length recital and he thus set about transcribing earlier pieces in his catalogue. The outcome was a programme Stravinsky and Dushkin toured to England and France in 1934, America in 1935 and elsewhere until the composer’s emigration to the United States in 1939.

Pragmatic the collaboration may have been, but not to the extent of Stravinsky’s merely adapting the material without consideration as to its performer. The suite he arranged from the ballet Pulcinella is a case in point. Originally made in 1925 and given the somewhat fanciful title of Suite d’après des themes, fragments et morceaux de Giambattista Pergolesi, the virtuoso nature of the writing reflected the playing of Polish violinist Pawel Kochánski and was appreciably streamlined in the process of devising the Suite italienne for Dushkin (an eponymous work for cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, made just before, may also have been an influence here).

The suite opens, as does the ballet, with an Introduzione whose melodic poise and piquant harmonies set the tone for what is to follow. Next comes a Serenata whose essentially vocal quality translates naturally to the violin, while the energetic Tarantella features some notably incisive interplay between the two instruments. The heart of the suite comes with the Gavotta con due variazioni, its theme a fine instance of Stravinsky’s identity with his material such that the stylistic gulf between the Baroque and the Modern eras is effortlessly overcome, and to which the two variations bring a range of subtle incremental changes. Added especially for this version of the suite, the Scherzino places no mean emphasis on phrasing and intonation. The final two pieces unfold continuously: the Minuetto builds from its chaste beginning to an eloquent climax, then the Finale sets off at an energetic pace and exudes engaging humour on its way to an effervescent conclusion.

The other substantial arrangement made with Dushkin in mind was a Divertimento extracted in 1934 from the ballet after Tchaikovsky Le baiser de la fée (The Fairy’s Kiss). Stravinsky also transcribed this for orchestra, and the version for violin and piano is all but identical in its content, making several short omissions in the earlier part of the ballet then leaving out the whole of the final scene which the composer probably felt was simply too pictorial to be viable in abstract terms (and whose climactic statement of the song None but the Lonely Heart is the one instance where Stravinsky resorts to a Tchaikovsky ‘evergreen’ as opposed to an unfamiliar piece).

Once again the suite starts at the beginning of the original work, its Sinfonia being a truncated equivalent of the ballet’s Prologue in which the narrative is set in motion. A plaintive initial theme at length gives way to one of robust rhythmic cast, the initial theme re-entering briefly after a rhetorical pause followed by a toccata-like dash of mounting tension. This is curtailed at its height for the Danses suisses, which, in the ballet, takes place at a village fête and is accordingly music whose infectious gait holds good through several contrasting ideas. The Scherzo finds the synthesis between Tchaikovskian inspiration and Stravinskian reinvention at its most persuasive, as well as translating effortlessly to the chamber medium. The final three pieces constitute the pas de deux, thus an Adagio whose emotional fervour is the greater for its brief duration, followed by a nimble Variation then a Coda whose headlong energy and resolute close gives but little indication of where the ballet is headed.

The Duo Concertant remained Stravinsky’s only original work for his partnership with Dushkin. Completed in July 1932 and given its première by them in Berlin on 28 October, this looks back to the inscrutable neo-classicism of the Sonata and Serenade for piano from the mid-1920s, while both its movement titles and the composer’s description of it as ‘created under the influence of Virgil’s pastoral style’ anticipate the Greek ethos of the opera-ballet Perséphone. Easy to overlook in the context of his larger works from the period, the piece is a reminder that, under different circumstances, Stravinsky could have made a more extensive contribution to the chamber genre.

The opening Cantilène is notable for a particularly close integration of the instruments, drawing a great deal of impetus from the contrast between its seamless violin lines and detached piano chords, prior to the quiet though uncertain close. There follow two movements that are entitled Eglogue. The first of these (which has been likened to a Cossack dance) is a study in pungent harmonies and rhythms, while the second is the still centre of the whole work in its gently undulating violin phrases and pensive responses from the piano. The Gigue has the feel of an oblique take on the tarantella dance-measure, with the violin’s frequent change of rhythmic emphasis given context by the piano’s continuity of motion. After this, the final Dithyrambe feels the more understated in its inwardness, for all that it reaches the work’s most plangent climax, the final bars coming full-circle in a mood which is no less affecting for all the music’s expressive abstraction.

Richard Whitehouse

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