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Limelight, May 2006

No other disc I've heard in the Robert Craft Collection so clearly illustrates Stravinsky's extraordinarty stylistic diversity. The graceful neo-classicism of Apollo (a 1947 revision of his 1928 ballet Apollon musagète) creates a gentle, idealised image of Greek mythology far removed from the hard-edged yet soulfully expressive world of Orpheus (1948). However, it is the astringent sonorities and constantly changing moods of the serialist-influenced Agon, completed when Stravinsky was 74, that has the most dramatic impact. As with all the releases in this magnificent series, the performances are excellent.

Mark Swed
Los Angeles Times, October 2005

Robert Craft's Apollo is more an idea than a living, breathing god. Craft has never been a particularly engaging conductor, but as Stravinsky's longtime associate, he has always been an interesting one. And his performances of "Apollo," the charming "Orpheus" and the later, edgier "Agon" do have a curious way of drawing you into the music and bringing you back for more. Given that the Naxos disc costs half as much as the ECM competition, that's a further draw.

Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News, July 2005

Spanning three decades, these are three of the masterpieces born of the long and fertile partnership between Stravinsky and ballet master George Balanchine. . . . It's good to have the three together in suave and beautifully recorded performances conducted by Stravinsky's assistant-amanuensis Robert Craft.

John Phillips
MusicWeb International, July 2005

"Naxos’s Stravinsky-Craft Collection continues. Recently we had the complete Firebird and now we have another in the series of Stravinsky recordings he made for other companies. Koch International originally released London Symphony recordings and Music Masters the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (not the London band).

When I first started listening to this disc I was made aware immediately that this was not a chamber orchestra version of the ballet. It was most refreshing to hear a large band of strings all playing superbly together instead of the more usual small chamber orchestra with all the attendant problems.

This for me would be sufficient reason for purchasing this disc were it not also for the fact that in Robert Craft, we have perhaps Stravinsky’s ideal interpreter. The richness of the recording also adds bloom to the somewhat smaller-sounding Orchestra of St. Luke’s so that the sound picture is pretty consistent, given the smaller body of strings.

By re-releasing other companies’ recordings, Naxos can mix and match as they wish to provide sensible planning and it is unusual to have these three ballets coupled together on the same disc. It appears to be one of the first, and is also very welcome for this reason; not to mention its comprehensive programme notes and low price. No-one can now have the excuse for not having these most romantic-sounding ballet scores in one’s collection.

Apollo: "In classical dancing I see the triumph of studied conception over vagueness, of the rule over the arbitrary, of order over the haphazard. ... I see in it the perfect expression of the Apollonian principle." (Stravinsky)

Stravinsky chose the subject of the ballet. The French original of the following scenario, adapted from the Homeric Hymn to the Delphic Apollo, is pasted at the head of the first page of his sketchbook:

Ilithiya arrives at Delos. Leto was with child and, feeling the moment of birth at hand, threw her arms about a palm tree and knelt on the soft grass. The earth smiled beneath her and the child sprang forth to the light. ... Two goddesses, Leto’s handmaidens, washed the child with pure, limpid water. For swaddling clothes they gave him a white veil of fine linen tissue, binding it with a golden girdle. Themis brought nectar and ambrosia.

Really this needs dancers to interpret rather than a sound-only recording. This should not deter you in the least from trying this recording.

When we reach Agon, the situation is even worse. This ballet was devised completely by the composer, and is plotless. Moreover, apart from differences in orchestration, the first and last movements are the same. The ballet consists of a further fourteen movements, none of which use the full orchestral resources.

Orpheus is somewhat better known and is based upon the well known story of our hero. The subject matter was chosen by Balanchine, and he and the composer worked together on the score and its choreography in 1947. The source material came from Book 10 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The ballet is written in three scenes and is particularly lyrical in the composer’s output.

Again, performances and recording quality are first rate, and this disc can be recommended very highly."

David Hurwitz, June 2005

I can't think of another conductor I would rather hear in this music than Robert Craft, not just because he is more respectful of the text than just about anyone else, but because he has the confidence and integrity to respect the music's understated idiom--to suggest rather than announce--as well as a keen understanding of the rhythmic element that underpins it all. This last factor is particularly critical in Apollo, music whose extreme stylization can become a caricature if taken too slowly or denied the necessary lightness and grace. Craft's supple leadership keeps the piece moving along smartly, with a firm lyrical line threading through the acres of ornament. In Agon, his careful observance of dynamics ensures that the difficult-to-capture licks for harp and mandoline register with complete naturalness and clarity. Orpheus, one of Stravinsky's most striking and luminous pieces, has a cool beauty that Craft realizes particularly well, again by taking care over matters of phrasing and balance. I could be very specific as to the scores, but suffice it to say that just about every page contains relevant examples of what I am describing. More importantly, with excellent playing and sonics, all at a budget price, if you want this music you can't do better.

Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News, June 2005

"White on white" was George Balanchine's perfect description of Stravinsky's "Apollon Musagette," one of the great hidden masterworks of 20th century music and one of Stravinsky's least-known great works. "Apollo" is his 1947 revision of it, and you couldn't find a better interpreter than Craft, the conductor/collaborator who was the master's late-life amanuensis. "Agon" is his least thorny serial work and "Orpheus" from 1948 will always have its partisans, even if it doesn't begin to have the singular beauty of "Apollo."

Tony Haywood
MusicWeb International, June 2005

"This intelligent coupling of three Greek-inspired Stravinsky ballets is so sensible and logical I’m surprised it’s not been thought of before by the record companies. The works are true kindred spirits, from the ethereal beauty of Apollo through to the thornier serial dalliances of Agon, and one would imagine that Robert Craft should be the ideal man for the job. It is my first encounter with the Craft /Koch cycle that Naxos are re-issuing, though if memory serves, some of them had muted critical responses on their original release.

The first impressions are of a no-nonsense briskness of approach which, coupled with a very weighty orchestral sonority, makes a big impact, maybe too big in the case of Apollo. The gorgeous, deceptively simple C major arpeggiated opening is more deftly handled by Rattle (EMI, coupled with a visceral Rite of Spring) who allows the music slightly more breathing space. Likewise, the sheer hugeness of string sound in Variation d’apollon (tr. 7) may surprise those brought up on Stravinsky’s own sweetly voiced Columbia Symphony recording (Sony) but it is mightily exciting. Craft seems to be eschewing any sense of neo-classical lightness, and the clever syncopations in the coda (tr.9) show how a virtuosic LSO follow him all the way.

Orpheus responds better to Craft’s full blooded treatment. He is slightly less aggressive in the beautiful descending octatonic scale that opens the work, letting the music unfold more naturally. A cool, plaintive quality, entirely suitable for the music, pervades the performance and one hopes that this budget disc will encourage people to discover what is still a relatively neglected major Stravinsky work.

Wedged between these two obvious relations is Stravinsky’s last ballet, rated by many as his last masterpiece. Agon is a marvellous score, full of quirky invention and amazingly ingenious orchestration. Simon Rattle used the opening (and closing) fanfare as the signature tune for his Channel 4 documentary ‘Leaving Home – A Conducted Tour of 20th Century Music’ and I like his own personal description of the piece as ‘…a machine, but a machine that thinks. It is like a pocket-sized history of music’. Craft’s is a very swift and energised machine, so much so that things nearly trip up occasionally (try the harp in track 16’s Galliard). But generally the St. Luke’s band is skilful enough to bring everything off wonderfully, and this version is generally better played and certainly in better sound than Stravinsky’s own Los Angeles version, one of the earliest on his Sony box and made only days after the premiere in 1957.

It’s probably Craft’s generally fast tempos that mean all three ballets can be accommodated generously on this single disc. Things never get out of hand, but if you are used to more relaxed readings, be prepared. I’m already of the opinion that Craft’s refusal to linger pays dividends, and the sheer power of the readings, allied to a quite up-front sound, links the works more readily to Stravinsky’s earlier style. There are quite a few different couplings for all three ballets, but for a fiver and all on one disc, this is virtually self-recommending."

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