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David Jacobsen
American Record Guide, September 2011

All of these performances are satisfying. The performance of the Sonata for Two Pianos is very good. The Requiem Canticles are also done well…Richard O’Neill gives a stunning performance of one of Stravinsky’s most memorable works.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

James Manheim, June 2011

The Naxos label has earned justifiable praise for its ongoing series of Stravinsky recordings under Robert Craft, the conductor who introduced a good deal Stravinsky’s music to the public. He also introduced much of the music of the Second Viennese School to Stravinsky, who was persuaded to jump onto the serialist bandwagon late in life. Craft’s rather dry, deliberate readings quite resemble those in the Stravinsky recordings he made in the 1950s and 1960s, and the general level of craft achieved by a conductor aged 85. This said, the program here has an odds-and-ends feel, mixing neo-classic works from the 1930s and 1940s and serialist works from the 1960s that have been part of the textbooks ever since, but have never really held the concert stage. The chief attraction, given large print on the packaging, is the Duo Concertante for violin and piano, composed in 1932 and evidencing a typically tense relationship with classical forms. The violin and piano trade places in the dominant role several times over the course of the work, and Stravinsky also introduces rhythmic shifts that seem to approach the metrical modulation technique from later in the 20th century. One gets the feeling that the piece, although firmly in the main line of Stravinskian neo-classicism, suggests experimental ideas that the composer never fully developed. It’s not clear what Craft’s contribution to the chamber performances on the album might have been. Another unusual find here is the Bluebird Pas de deux, an arrangement of a passage from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty with the very Stravinskian addition of a piano. The Sonata for two pianos (1944) is a less imposing work than might be imagined, having been pieced together from several projects underway during Stravinsky’s first years in the U.S. The Requiem Canticles (1966) and Abraham and Isaac, a sacred ballad for baritone and chamber orchestra (1963) are prime examples of Stravinsky’s late-life attempt to mold serialism to his own style, often with religious content. They’re rather ponderous works, although with the composer’s characteristic economy, and the listener is required to make quite a lurch from the rest of the program. Still, one feels that Craft is especially at home here with his deliberate, precise style. Craft’s series may be aimed primarily at longtime Stravinsky buffs, but they will find many items of interest here.

Robert Cummings
Classical Net, June 2011

This is yet another volume in the ongoing Stravinsky series on Naxos, a major cycle unfolding under the direction of conductor, and one-time close associate of Stravinsky, Robert Craft. The leadoff work here is the 1932 Duo Concertant, a first-rate masterpiece. The rhythmic exuberance of the opening section and the wonderful contrast there and throughout between the two instruments makes this a work you can listen to again and again. The violin is often stately or ethereal or somber, while the piano is generally light and bouncy, save for the slower sections. The performance here by violinist Jennifer Frautschi and pianist Jeremy Denk fully captures the essence of this clever Stravinsky work.

To me, the Sonata for Two Pianos (1943–44) is less successful. It has its moments, of course, and also comes across with a measure of charm, but Stravinsky wasn’t Prokofiev or Rachmaninov, and thus didn’t quite grasp the piano the way they could. I couldn’t help but imagine an orchestral version of the music as I listened, as the textures seemed to cry out for a larger treatment. Well, of course, those familiar with the history of the work know that it was drawn from music originally intended for orchestra. It may have been written to serve as a motion picture score, some have conjectured. At any rate, the music is interesting, if not first-rate Stravinsky, and the performance by Ralph van Raat and Maarten van Veen is fine.

Fine, too, is the performance of Requiem Canticles, a rather dry piece that often wallows in austere choral writing and bassoon-dominated gloom—it is a Requiem, after all. This work, from 1965–66, is late-Stravinsky, which means it was written in his serial phase. The music is not quite as challenging as, say, Schoenberg’s twelve-note works, but is nevertheless difficult for the average listener today. That said, it can be a rewarding piece, as its textures are quite transparent, and its music subtle and powerfully atmospheric.

Abraham and Isaac, written a little earlier (1962–63), is of a similar character. The text is sung in Hebrew and tells the familiar story of Abraham following God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac, whom he ends up not sacrificing, of course, as God was merely testing Abraham’s loyalty. David Wilson-Johnson sings with utter commitment and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Robert Craft play splendidly. Again, the music will be somewhat challenging but can be engaging to adventurous listeners willing to give it a few hearings.

The Elegie for Solo Viola, from 1944, is a dark work of subtle character. Dedicated to the memory of Pro Arte String Quartet founder, Alphonse Onnou (d. 1940), the somber mood and slow pacing are indeed elegiac and mournful. Richard O’Neill’s performance is totally convincing.

The arrangement of four Tchaikovsky pieces from The Sleeping Beauty is a real delight. Stravinsky’s take on these little nuggets reduces their instrumentation to a chamber-sized ensemble and gives the music greater transparency and wit. In his informative notes Robert Craft speaks of Stravinsky’s “improvement over Tchaikovsky’s orchestration”, and goes on to talk about the latter’s “thickness and clumsiness” in a particular section of the scoring. I think Tchaikovsky’s scoring was quite appropriate for his ballet music, and while Stravinsky’s arrangement is cleverly conceived, it is merely a different take on the music, but not an improvement on it. Issues like this, however, come down to a matter of opinion, I guess. In any event, the performance by Craft and the Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble is spirited. The sound on all works is excellent. Recommended.

Sterling Beeaff
KBAQ, May 2011

CD of the Week

(Phoenix, AZ) Acclaimed Stravinsky expert Robert Craft continues his recordings on the Naxos label with an album of diverse pieces, including the Duo Concertant, the Sonata for Two Pianos, the Requiem Canticles, and Abraham and Isaac, a dramatic retelling of the Old Testament story. Performers include violinist Jennifer Frautschi and pianist Jeremy Denk.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2011

I think we must be coming to the end of this most important addition to the Stravinsky discography conducted and fashioned by Robert Craft. For more than twenty years he was the composer’s companion, co-conductor and working partner. Of course those who have studied Stravinsky’s own recordings will point out the vastly changing approach he brought to the interpretation of his scores over the years, so that Craft will be yet another part of that kaleidoscope. Still, taken on their own merits, his performances have been outstanding, and we have now arrived at the ‘sweeping-up’ of shorter pieces including Stravinsky’s re-orchestration of extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty to form a short Bluebird ballet. Originally for chamber group, as performed here, it is today nearly always played by symphony orchestra. In this format you hear just how much Stravinsky changed the orchestration. Two vocal pieces, both composed in the 1960’s, open with an exceptionally fine Requiem Canticals, the Philharmonia’s crisply articulated playing and good singing from Sally Burgess and Roderick Williams making it highly desirable. I always find the dissonances and angular rhythms of Abraham and Isaac difficult to enjoy and the performance of baritone, David Wilson-Johnson, does nothing to change that situation. Jennifer Frautschi and Jeremy Denk are faithful servants in the Duo Concertante for Violin and Piano, and if I enjoy Naxos’s existing recording of the Sonata for Two Pianos rather more than this, Ralph van Raat and Maarten van Veen are well worth hearing. Richard O’Neill is the lightweight viola in the Elegy. The disc does not make clear if any of these recordings, which span the period 2005 to 2008, have been previously available, the compilation engineer doing well to match the various venue sounds.

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