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Stephen Francis Vasta
MusicWeb International, January 2007

The record companies' recent flurry of interest in Robert Craft had puzzled me. Granted, as Stravinsky's longtime assistant, the conductor presumably represents a direct link to the composer's ideas about his music and its interpretation. Still, the discovery that Sony - or Columbia, as it was then - in its Stravinsky series, had successfully passed off some Craft performances as the composer's own was hardly reassuring, given Stravinsky's generally stiff stick technique. A dismal concert at New York's Kaye Playhouse, with Craft leading the Orchestra of St. Luke's in a sort of line-diagram Mozart 29th and an aimless Schoenberg Serenade, reinforced my negative impressions.

Well, it's a pleasure to have those illusions shattered. Craft leads vital, colorful performances of these two Stravinsky ballets - performances that immediately take their place on the short-list for these works.

Pulcinella, based on themes attributed to Pergolesi - some of them correctly - begins as if to confirm the bad old Craft stereotype. The opening statement, stripped of its customary weight and grandeur, is offhand, even hasty; the bassoon solo evinces no particular relish; the Serenata, with its no-nonsense pacing of the siciliana rhythm, doesn't breathe. But a bright upward swoop leads to a perky, strongly-accented Scherzino with woodwind colors to the fore, while the phrasing of the Andantino section is "Classically" cool and poised. All the more extroverted movements are ear-catching: the zippy scherzando mood of the Allegro assai (track 5) has an infectious, undulating swing; there's a bounding exuberance to 'Nce sta quaccuna po' (track 9); the tarantella rhythm in track 13 comes across clearly. Elsewhere, Craft's emphasis on clarity serves the better to draw Stravinsky's variety of colors and textures to the fore. And, while he eschews conventional expressive gestures, there's ample scope for nuance and shading. The oboe solo in the Gavotta with variations (track 16) has a real sweetness; the divided strings conjure a resplendent effect in the finale; Diana Montague inflects Se tu m'ami movingly.

It's Montague, in fact, who takes the vocal honors with her creamy, plangent timbre and poised, unstrained vocal production. Mark Beesley proffers a solid but not cavernous bass; he copes extremely well, if not without some strain, with the demanding high tessitura of Con queste paroline; which, according to the conductor's note, the vocal score incorrectly prints down an octave. Tenor Robin Leggate's performance is an enigma. He doesn't sing heavily, but his thick vowel formations make him dominate the unisons of Sento dire and produce some stiff phrasing elsewhere. Strangely, in Una te fa and the Minuet, he sings with a brighter, narrower tone that's both better focused and more flexible - was he in such markedly different vocal condition on the two recording days?

Like Pulcinella, The Fairy's Kiss is based on older music. Here Stravinsky, drawing mostly on themes from Tchaikovsky's small piano pieces, develops them and augments them with original connective tissue to produce what sounds like a new, authentic Tchaikovsky ballet - although the multilayered texture about four minutes into Scene II suggests a Tchaikovsky who knew Petrushka! Craft doesn't try to force this romantic score into an inappropriate neo-classical aesthetic, as his mentor was sometimes wont to do; he allows the themes to unfold in a natural, singing manner, without exaggerated rhetoric or loss of clarity. The woodwind octaves near the start are eerily yearning; a haunting Russian melancholy inhabits the minor-key melodies.

Each of the excellent orchestras leaves a distinctive stamp on its performance … though, given the vagaries of personnel shifts and the time elapsed between sessions, some of the same players may well have participated in both. The Philharmonia brings splendid rhythmic address and sharply etched textures suit the score's neo-classical cast, with rich, round horns and brazen brasses offering added impact. The LSO, in turn, fleshes out The Fairy's Kiss with an emotionally and texturally richer sonority. The woodwind sound, rounder and more diffuse than the Philharmonia's, perfectly suits the material. The principal horn is superb in the high-lying phrases, the solo string interpolations in Scene II are vibrant; the soft brass chorales are clear and pillowy.

Naxos indicates that "[t]hese recordings were previously released on Koch International Classics"; I never encountered that earlier issue, but I'm certainly glad these performances are back, and at low Naxos prices to boot. The sound is excellent, by the way, with a subtle ambience coloring the woodwinds in The Fairy's Kiss, and the booklet considerately includes Italian texts and English translations for the songs in Pulcinella

see also reviews by Dominy Clements and Glyn Pursglove

William Zagorski
Fanfare, November 2006

Robert Craft…is at the helm of two world-class orchestras and delivers his typically razor-sharp, idiomatically on-the-mark, and insightfully illuminating performances of the whole scores of Pulcinella and Fairy’s Kiss.

To read the complete review, please visit Fanfare online.

Fanfare, May 2006

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R.D., February 2006

The Two Tchaikovskys on these discs were not related and musically poles apart, yet distinctive personalities – the world-cherished one who lived from 1840 to 1893, a special favorite of Stravinsky – and Boris, born in 1925 who died in 1996. Pyotr Ilich is represented in Stravinsky’s 1928 homage, the full title of which (translated into English) is The Fairy’s Kiss, Allegorical Ballet in Four Tableaux, Inspired by the Muse of Tchaikovsky. The version here is the complete 42-minute work (rather than the 25-minute Divertimento for orchestra that I.S. made in 1934, or the violin and piano adaptation Stravinsky wrote for himself and Samuel Dushkin in 1932), and an extraordinary charmer it is. The Tchaikovsky materials incorporated are youthful songs and piano pieces, yet none of them quoted verbatim but woven into a tapestry based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of a child abducted by a fairy who kisses his forehead and then abandons him for 20 years, after which time she reclaims him for eternity in “a land beyond time and place” where, this time, she kisses the sole of his foot. As conductor Robert Craft writes in his program note, “the young man of course is Tchaikovsky himself, the Fairy his Mephistophelean muse. The ending of Stravinsky’s homage to his beloved forbear [is] one of the most moving he ever wrote.” Amen. This recording with the London Symphony Orchestra as well as the conductor on their mettle was made in January 1995, and originally issued on Koch International.

Pulcinella of 1920, written for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, was based on alleged pieces by Pergolesi (1710-36) that the impresario had found in Naples, whereas less than half of the 19 numbers turned out to be music by the short-lived native of Jesi who studied in Naples. The rest came instead from transcriptions in the British museum of baroque pieces by Pergolesi’s contemporaries. Stravinsky scored the work for 33 instruments, including a modern trombone (not yet “invented”), and three singers; the original was choreographed for himself in title role by Leonid Myassin (Frenchified as Léonide Massine), Diaghilev’s inamorato after Nijinsky’s withdrawal into marriage and madness. The characters, if not the plot, are commedia dell’arte staples, and the music has enjoyed an independent life in the concert hall. Of Craft’s soloists in this 1997 recording, likewise on Koch International originally, mezzo Diana Montague is clearly the superior vocalist. The orchestra is the Philharmonia, and while it validates its suavity, the players seem unmoved otherwise: in other words a “sessions” performance despite Craft’s urging and their successful collaboration in other works. Whether or not you already have a Pulcinella, this third installment is a must for Stravinskians as well as Tchaikovskyites, thanks to the full Fairy’s Kiss. The recorded sound, not least, is vivid indeed in both works – better than some made a decade later. One ought to add, however, that in 1995 Naxos issued a performance of Pulcinella recorded two years earlier (coupled with Danses concertantes) featuring tenor Ian Bostridge, with Stefan Sanderling conducting the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. I don’t know it (wasn’t even aware of its existence until checking the internet) but it is still listed as available. Craft’s version is three minutes shorter, but the prior version – after all, recorded only four years earlier – has my curiosity whetted even if my wallet says, “Nay, you don’t like the music that much.”

David Hurwitz, January 2006

Like most of Robert Craft's Stravinsky discs, this is very, very good, and questioning the conductor's authority in this music is tantamount to casting doubt on the composer himself (though not on his own hit-and-miss conducting!). The coupling is apt: both works are based on earlier music--Gallo and Pergolesi (for the most part) on the one hand, Tchaikovsky on the other. As Craft points out in his notes, however, Pulcinella remains comparatively faithful to the originals, with changes principally in terms of rhythm and scoring. The Fairy's Kiss, though, takes Tchaikovsky's tunes as a starting point, modifying them considerably, with most of the music being effectively original. . . . overall he (Craft) gets fine results from both orchestras as well as from his three singers (in Pulcinella). If you're looking for both ballets complete, the combination of value and artistic quality on offer here speaks for itself.

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