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Penguin Guide, January 2009

These performances originally appeared on the Kock International label and are well worth investigating at such an attractive price. The Jeu de cartes with the Philharmonia Orchestra is exhilarating and gives much pleasure. Probably the best thing on the disc is Scénes de Ballet, which has rarely been given with greater charm and wit. Very good sound.

Greg Keane
Limelight, June 2008

No other musician was closer to Stravinsky than Robert Craft and he must be considered the doyen of today’s Stravinsky conductors. …The Orchestra of St Luke’s brings outs all the brittle charm and laconic glitter of Stravinsky’s neo-classical period and Mark Wait is a perfect soloist.

James H. North
Fanfare, May 2008

Danses concertantes is marvelous here. The playing is exceptionally clean, the rhythms crisp, and the sound gorgeous. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

Leslie Wright
MusicWeb International, March 2008

This compilation of material previously issued on Koch International Classics (Jeu de cartes and Danses concertantes) and MusicMasters (Scènes de Ballet, Variations, and Capriccio) continues Robert Craft’s highly regarded series of Stravinsky works for Naxos. If you didn’t purchase these earlier at full price, now is the time to take advantage of their reissue at budget cost. The title of this particular disc is somewhat misleading in that it contains only three of Stravinsky’s later ballets. The others, Apollo, Orpheus, and Agon appeared on an earlier disc. The Capriccio, however, also received ballet treatment by George Ballanchine. Thus, only Variations, lasting just under six minutes, seems out of place here.

Jeu de cartes has had a number of good recordings over the years, but none to surpass the composer’s own with the Cleveland Orchestra. The one here by Robert Craft is excellent as is Riccardo Chailly’s with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on a Decca two-disc set of Stravinsky ballets. The main differences are in the conductors’ approach to the score. Craft emphasizes the bold gestures of the ballet with its brassy climaxes, while Chailly is more nuanced. He tends to bring out the wit in the woodwind solos, while Craft gives the brass the lead. Both orchestras perform very well and are well recorded, if neither performance erases memories of Stravinsky’s own recording.

Danses concertantes is one of Stravinsky’s most delightful neo-classical works, which deserves more exposure than it has gotten. It was one of the first pieces the composer wrote after taking up residence in California. It is very sunny work for chamber orchestra, with many delightful wind and brass solos. This Craft recording is about as good as it gets. This type of clear, airy music suits the conductor to a tee and is worth the price of the CD alone. It goes with real zest and Craft really relishes the jazzy syncopation in the score. The orchestra’s playing is faultless. For a more lyrical, less spiky, interpretation the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on DG (combined with Orpheus) is also good. However, where Craft really crackles, Orpheus seems a trifle soft-centered.

Scènes de Ballet is a less inspired work than either Jeu de cartes, or Danses concertantes. These earlier works displayed Stravinsky’s humor to a much greater degree, including near-quotations from Rossini’s Barber of Seville in the former and Yankee Doodle Dandy in the latter. Scènes de Ballet was commissioned for a Broadway review, and the composer later apologized for the trumpet solo in the Adagio Pas de deux (track 12) that indeed sounds like Broadway. Overall, the ballet lacks much of the trademark rhythmic qualities of so much of Stravinsky’s music but nonetheless has enough to sustain interest. Craft’s performance here is all one could ask for and its inclusion on this disc is worthwhile.

The next work on the CD, Variations, is one of Stravinsky’s most forbidding works—all six minutes of it! Coming under the influence of Schoenberg and Webern, especially the latter, Stravinsky not only utilized the twelve-tone system for the work but also composed three twelve-part variations heard four times each. One could say that he really absorbed the “twelve” of the dodecaphonic school in a big way! Craft provides a detailed analysis of Variations in his usual exemplary notes in which he advises listeners to give the work more than one try. In fact, he recommends repeated listening to the piece. I dare say it would take this to become familiar with it, if in fact it is worth the effort. The performance here seems fine, though I would have to follow the score to prove it. The London Philharmonic soloists are impressive. The one benefit of having Variations on a disc with much more accessible music is to give the listener a taste of what Stravinsky was to become in his last decade. For a CD with more appropriate material and one of the best of all Stravinsky discs, I heartily recommend Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta’s on DG. It contains several late works including The Flood, composed for American television and what is arguably Stravinsky’s greatest work of his later years, Requiem Canticles. Variations is dedicated to the memory of the composer’s friend Aldous Huxley, who died three months after Stravinsky began composing the work.

It is rather a relief to turn to the last work on the disc, the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. In part the first and last movements of this light-hearted work remind me of the works for piano and orchestra of Francis Poulenc, especially his Double Piano Concerto which the French composer wrote three years after Stravinsky’s work. The slow movement, though, is darker in mood and more typically Stravinskian. As in the other works on the disc, it receives a first-rate performance, with conductor and pianist Mark Wait relishing both the lyricism and rhythmic verve of the work. Paul Crossley with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the London Sinfonietta also provide a convincing account on Sony, a disc that contains Stravinsky’s other piano/ensemble works as well.

Leslie Wright
MusicWeb International, March 2008

No other musician was closer to Stravinsky than Robert Craft and he must be considered the doyen of today’s Stravinsky conductors. …The Orchestra of St Luke’s brings outs all the brittle charm and laconic glitter of Stravinsky’s neo-classical period and Mark Wait is a perfect soloist.

Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, February 2008

A formidable collection from one who knew the composer better than anyone else

The is the latest in the series of Robert Craft-conducted releases that Naxos was wise enough to acquire from previous issues of other companies, in this case MusicMasters and Koch Classics. Craft, long time supporter and confidant of Igor Stravinsky, and also biographer and even amanuensis in some instances, embarked on a series of recordings in the early 1990s that is still going, and in the end may well represent the most important collection of Stravinsky recordings since the composer’s own; certainly there is no more complete one.

This CD brings together what it calls “later ballets”, though one must probably exclude the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra as its origins are from 1929, and used in the Balanchine ballet Jewels (the “rubies” section). The others start from wartime, Stravinsky himself having to tolerate no little criticism for his “happy spirits” in the first American-formed composition, Danses concertantes. This piece took form at his then to be longtime residence in California, and despite the ravages of the occupation of France and the British bombings, a man who had spent six months in a sanatorium, and suffered through three deaths (wife, eldest daughter, and mother) can certainly be excused for wanting a little relief to the stress. So in 1941-42 he did exactly that, and created one of his most sparkling works, played to aesthetic perfection by the Twentieth Century Classic Ensemble, a group of Craft’s own formation.

Jeu de cartes, a luscious tonal sensation, and subtitled a “Ballet in Three Deals for Orchestra”, was a 1935 commission by Balanchine focusing on the unlikely dealings of a four-card suit and their trouble with the evil spirit, the Joker. There is no slow music here, and the action is fast and furious, with minimal dissonance and maximum entertainment, remaining one of his most approachable scores. Scenes de Ballet, also a very popular score, was designated for Broadway, the 1944 spectacle The Seven Lively Arts. It was completed on the day of the liberation of Paris from the Germans, but even that fact wasn’t enough to persuade the pit orchestra to have a better go at the tricky five-bar beats, and the work was severely cut, finally taken up by Frederick Ashton and the Royal Ballet, in whose repertory it remains to this day.

The Variations is the one piece on the disc that is quite dissimilar in tone. Stravinsky never wrote a more dense or complex piece of music, though when you hear it, it is remarkably clear. It is a twelve-tone series with three twelve-part variations internal to it. The instrumentation changes radically for each variation, and despite the complexity one comes away more with an impression of color and texture than serial considerations. Sometimes called the “Huxley Variations” (it was dedicated posthumously to the composer’s great friend Aldous Huxley), the piece is an important one in Stravinsky’s subsequent foray into serialism, a form he gave his own inimitable stamp.

The sound is very good on this release, perhaps a bit better on the MusicMasters transfers, but never less that excellent. Just glancing at the orchestras on this disc should be enough to convince you that the performances are played with superior spirit and accuracy. Robert Craft was wise in giving these works his second wind, and this release is mandatory for any Stravinsky collection worth its salt.

Edward Greenfield
Gramophone, February 2008

Stravinsky dons his dancing shoes for this sparkling ballet collection

This collection of Stravinsky's later ballets represents the composer in lighter mood, making a delightful sequence, very well played and recorded under the authoritative direction of the composer's principal amanuensis. Jeux de cartes ("The Card Game") of 1936 points directly forward to Stravinsky's style in his opera The Rake's Progress, the piece reflecting his love of the game of poker: the three main sections of the ballet represent first, second and third deals, with the Joker figuring in each. The piece was written for the great choreographer Georges Balanchine. Craft's performance with the Philharmonia has an aptly clean attack, with the chugging rhythms well lifted, very suitable for ballet.

Danses concertantes represents Stravinsky in even lighter mood, the first major work he wrote after his arrival in the United States. It's fun music full of playfulness, ending with a jolly galloping theme in compound time. Scenes de ballet of 1944 was commissioned for a Broadway show, but sadly, the bars in 5/4 time were too difficult for the theatre orchestra to play, and it had to be abandoned for its original purpose, only to emerge later as a full concert piece and ballet. Variations, much the shortest item on the disc, represents Stravinsky using 12-tone technique, an uncompromising, densely packed five minutes which makes for difficult listening, while the Capriccio for piano and orchestra of 1929 returns to his jolly and light-hearted mood, the popular rhythms jauntily presented. Mark Wait is an outstanding soloist. Altogether, a delightful collection brilliantly played and recorded.

Ewan MacCormick
MusicWeb International, February 2008

Another valuable reissue of Robert Craft’s Stravinsky series originally recorded for the Koch Label. Although titled “Later Ballets”, this CD also contains some pieces, such as Variations and Capriccio, that were written primarily for concert performance but which were subsequently choreographed for the stage.

Jeu de cartes arose from a Balanchine commission. The idea of basing a ballet on a card game apparently came to Stravinsky while on his way to a dinner engagement in Paris. Stravinsky and Balanchine saw the dancers as “cards” in a game of poker, manipulated by a malicious joker. The parallels with the rise of European fascism are all too clear. This idea allowed for ingenious choreography but, to Stravinsky’s approval, eliminated the need for romantic elements in the music. Interesting to remember that Bliss’s Checkmate, also using the formalities of a game to reflect the current totalitarian threat, appeared at very much the same time. Craft’s performance seems to lack something of the rhythmic energy which the piece demands, or perhaps the rather weighty orchestral sound and expansive acoustic on this recording militate against an ideal clarity of articulation.

The conductor Werner Janssen commissioned  Danses concertantes for his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra early in 1941. Although intended as a concert piece, Stravinsky cast the work in balletic forms and it was performed onstage in 1944 choreographed by Balanchine. Craft’s performance, with smaller forces than those used in Jeu de Cartes, is rhythmically alert and skilfully differentiates between concertante and tutti passages.

Billy Rose, the impresario, commissioned Scènes de Ballet from Stravinsky in 1944 for a forthcoming Broadway revue. Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin were to dance leading roles in the piece. Billy Rose was generally happy with Stravinsky’s music although he had some reservations regarding the orchestration, going as far as to suggest to Stravinsky that he enlist the help of Robert Russell Bennett to “retouch” the score - a suggestion which, unsurprisingly, the composer rejected. With chamber forces Craft conducts a suitably pointed, lucid performance, although not underplaying the big, sentimental tune in the central Pas de Deux.

The late 12-note Variations were first performed in 1965, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Robert Craft conducting. Craft of course recorded this piece in the 1960s for Columbia (still available as part of the 22CD Stravinsky edition) but this LPO version benefits from more modern sound and technically superior playing. It’s an epigrammatic sort of a piece, Webernesque in its concentration, and highlighting the variations of the original series through changes in instrumentation.

The detailed programme notes provided by Robert Craft almost take longer to read than a performance of the work itself; those with an analytical bent will find them invaluable.

Stravinsky’s Capriccio rounds off the disc in ebullient style and is brilliantly played by Mark Wait. This music, also originally for concert performance, later became one of Balanchine’s most popular ballets, Rubies.

Overall it’s good to have these performances back in the catalogue, especially at bargain price. Craft is in most cases excellent at projecting the rhythmic vitality of the music and his programme notes are equally persuasive.

Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, February 2008

A great compilation of balletic masterpieces from Stravinsky's heyday in the 1930s, long after the riots generated by his Sacre du printemps. Stravinsky's standard-bearer Robert Craft conducts various orchestras in this collection. These are uniformly excellent performances, as is pianist Mark Wait's contribution in the quasi concerto 'Capriccio.' The audio quality overall is of the highest, superbly matched on the disc.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, December 2007

Continuing Robert Craft's complete recording of Stravinsky's orchestral works we have the ballets that followed the composer's series of highly provocative scores for Dyagilev and the Ballets Russes. We have now moved forward thirty years and more, and to the time of his association with the choreographer, George Balanchine, who was to commission Jeux de cartes, the story of a card game in three 'deals'. By now Stravinsky's scores had become lean in texture, and though the pungency was still there, the music had lost its ability to shock. Craft smooths out some of the more acerbic aspects of the score, concentrating on the wit in the music and in Balanchine's subsequent choreography. Six years later, and the first score completed in his new Hollywood home, came the Dances concertantes , as much intended for the concert hall as it was for the theatre. Its five sections scored for a chamber orchestra come from his neo-classicism era where atonality rubs shoulders with tonality, the scoring both taxing and exposed. Scenes de Ballet was completed in a great hurry to meet a commission for a Broadway score, some of the music in the seven short sections eventually defeating the pit orchestra, the entire ballet only fully realised in its London premiere with choreography by Frederick Ashton, that version taking the score into the ballet repertoire. Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra is a much earlier work from 1929 where atonality almost takes over, its presence on the disc coming from its later use by Balanchine for the ballet, Jewels. I suppose Naxos had to find a home in this cycle for the Variations, a score completed when Stravinsky was eighty-two, its premiere given by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Craft conducting. The recordings made through the 1990's have been released previously on various labels and feature a number of orchestras and recording locations. I particularly enjoyed the highly detailed and virtuoso account of the Dances concertantes from the New York based Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble; Mark Wait is the excellent soloist in the technically demanding Capriccio, and the London Philharmonic give the benchmark account of Variations. Though the Philharmonia Orchestra could with benefit have been brought forward in Jeu de cartes, the sound from such diverse sources is married together with little variation between tracks.

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