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Hyperion Records

CDA67698 - Stravinsky: Jeu de cartes, Agon & Orpheus
Orpheus by Odilon Redon (1840-1916)

Recording details: Various dates
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: September 2009
Total duration: 72 minutes 18 seconds


'Virile, cogent performances from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov … crisply sculpted and propulsive, the rhythmic sleights of hand diamond-sharp, the instrumental colours bold, the impact exhilarating' (Gramophone)

'Ilan Volkov shows tremendous empathy for Stravinsky's music. With the aid of meticulous playing from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, he delivers performances that project vibrant rhythmic urgency alongside a wonderful attention to internal detail and a subtle control of instrumental colour … [Jeu de Cartes] in comparison, Robert Craft and the LSO on the Naxos label sound surprisingly flaccid and lacking in youthful energy' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This is an inspired, and brilliantly played, grouping … the music is vibrant in a new way … Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra recognise and trace this stylistic course with a sharp ear … the sheer originality of all three ballets shows that Stravinsky's ability to catch the listener unawares did not stop with the Rite of Spring, and this superb disc is a revelatory testament to his daring' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Both works suit Volkov's sinewy, precise style down to the ground, and are quite thrillingly played' (The Guardian)

'This is a fine new Stravinsky disc from the excellent partnership of Ilan Volkov and the BBC SSO … it's an account that is similar in many ways to Stravinsky's own Sony Classical recording, but obviously in better sound. Volkov and his players seem to perform the work with even greater confidence and joie de vivre … the notes are by Stephen Walsh and are a model of clarity and conciseness, allied to deep understanding of the music. With such purposeful, sensitive conducting and such assured playing, this can be very warmly recommended' (International Record Review)

'The playing of the BBC Scottish SO under Volkov is so incisive and richly coloured … the whole disc, devoted to three Balanchine ballet scores composed over a period of 20 years, and embracing a wide variety of styles yet always quintessentially Stravinskian, is a joy to listen to' (The Sunday Times)

'A supreme disc' (The Scotsman)

'Ilan Volkov relishes the ballet scores of Stravinsky … he elicits diaphanous, knife-like clarity from his BBC constituents' (Audiophile Audition, USA)

'Volkov explores the subtle gradations of gray in Orpheus and, thanks to his rhythmic acuity, reveals the dazzling counterpoint in Agon' (The Philadelphia Inquirer, USA)

Jeu de cartes, Agon & Orpheus
No 4: Prelude  [0'49]
No 6: Interlude  [0'51]
No 8: Interlude  [0'50]
No 10: Coda  [1'31]
No 11: Four Duos  [0'32]

Stravinsky’s ballet music contains some of the composer’s most dazzling inspirations, and his work with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes brought him to international attention before the first world war. But it was through his collaborations with Diaghilev’s protégé George Balanchine that Stravinsky evolved the individual ‘neoclassical’ style of his own that is arguably his greatest contribution to the musical language of the twentieth century.

Contemporary audiences were thrilled by the innovative nature of these works. Walter Terry wrote in the Herald Tribune at the premiere of Agon that it was ‘quite possibly the most brilliant ballet creation of our day … true, Agon is not warm, not overtly human, but its very coolness is refreshing and it generates excitement because it totally ignores human foibles, dramatic situation, and concentrates wholly on the miracle of the dancing body’.

Five of Stravinsky’s ballets have been recorded on two discs (the second to be released in January) by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under maestro Ilan Volkov. Volkov’s mastery of a range of Russian music is well-represented on Hyperion and has been greatly acclaimed on the concert platform.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Stravinsky’s career as a ballet composer fell neatly into two distinct parts, with a small but important overlap and a few digressions. As is well known, he leapt to international fame before the First World War with the series of ballets he composed for Diaghilev’s Ballets russes, and he continued to write for, or at least work with, Diaghilev until the great impresario’s death in 1929. Admittedly the last ballet he actually composed for Diaghilev was Pulcinella, as long ago as 1920. But the Russian Ballet also staged the earlier Les Noces for the first time in 1923, they revived the Chant du Rossignol, with designs by Matisse, in 1925, and above all they staged Apollo (a work commissioned and first performed by the Library of Congress), in what Stravinsky himself clearly regarded as its real premiere, in Paris in June 1928. The choreographer for both these last two productions was Diaghilev’s latest dance protégé, a young Russian-born ballet-master called George Balanchine. And although the element of direct collaboration between Balanchine and Stravinsky was marginal in the one and at best distant in the other, they initiated an association that endured until the composer’s death more than four decades later.

The first product of this association was Jeu de cartes, composed in 1936 and staged in New York by the so-called American Ballet, with Stravinsky himself conducting, in April 1937. After Diaghilev’s death, Balanchine had tried to establish himself as a choreographer in Paris, but in 1934 he had been invited to New York by Lincoln Kirstein to help him set up his School of American Ballet—the first establishment of its kind in the United States. Early photographs of work at the school show Balanchine practising with some disconcertingly well-fed-looking ballerinas; but the company that formed from the school—the American Ballet—soon developed sufficient professionalism to be invited to be the resident troupe at the Metropolitan Opera, and it was this appointment that prompted Balanchine and Kirstein to commission a ballet from Stravinsky for the new company. The idea was highly speculative, since the Met seems to have had no particular intention of staging pure ballet (as opposed to ballet sequences in operas). But Stravinsky, having recently completed and premiered his Concerto for two solo pianos, was ready for a new project, and started work at once, in December 1935, still with no idea of what the ballet would be about.

The origins of the plot, such as it is, are obscure. For a time, Jean Cocteau was involved, and may have suggested La Fontaine’s fable ‘The Wolves and the Sheep’, an epigraph from which heads the eventual score. Some time later, Balanchine offered Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘Little Ida’s Flowers’. In the end—Stravinsky told a newspaper interviewer—he thought up the card-game idea himself in a Paris taxi, and was so pleased with himself that he promptly offered the cabbie a drink. But the idea hardly seems worth the outlay, and probably its main virtue from Stravinsky’s point of view was its sheer neutrality, its lack of any kind of direct human interest. The characters, as a note in the score explains, are the chief cards in a poker game, including the Joker, ‘who believes himself to be invincible because of his ability to become any desired card’. However, in the last of the three ‘Deals’ (that is, scenes), the Joker’s straight flush is beaten by a ‘natural’ royal flush, which ‘puts an end to his malice and knavery’.

Stravinsky was not a poker-player, and the scenario even suggests that he was a trifle vague about the rules. What poker gave him was the framework for an abstract re-creation of the form of classical ballet, somewhat in the manner of Apollo, whose plot is so static and uneventful as to be seriously hard to describe in narrative terms at all. Thus in Jeu de cartes, after the ceremonious Introduction (which recurs at the start of each Deal), we get a Pas d’action, introducing the minor characters, the Entry and Dance of the Joker, and a Waltz-Coda. In the second Deal, a March (hearts and spades) is followed by a series of solo Variations and a Pas de quatre for the four queens, while at the core of the final Deal is the combat of spades and hearts, reminiscent of the battle in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker (though it actually quotes Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture). This rather formal approach to dance drama reflects Stravinsky’s recent interest in the concept of ‘modelling’. In the twenties, the approach had usually involved some kind of style borrowing (Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky). But by the mid-thirties Stravinsky had evolved an individual ‘neoclassical’ style of his own, and though the music of Jeu de cartes is broadly tonal, rhythmically and metrically regular, and orchestrally conventional, it never really suggests anyone else’s style, even when it may seem to quote (Beethoven, Ravel, Johann Strauss and Delibes have all been ‘spotted’, besides the unmistakable bit of Rossini).

Balanchine, it turned out, liked this somewhat detached approach to the conventions of the past, and he particularly warmed to the idea of the plotless (or almost plotless) ballet. Later, he much preferred making ballets out of concert works, including many of Stravinsky’s, to re-choreographing story ballets like Petrushka (which he never attempted) or The Firebird (of which he staged only the 1945 suite). And when he did turn to a well-known story, as with Orpheus in 1946, he and Stravinsky between them reduced the narrative to a series of ritual ‘stations’ (like the Stations of the Cross), as if re-enacting a great mystery of remote antiquity whose outlines are known but whose meaning has been partly forgotten.

Orpheus, once again, was the brain-child of Lincoln Kirstein, who specifically wanted a companion-piece for Apollo to grace the second season of his new venture, Ballet Society. Stravinsky was not normally responsive to being told what sort of music he should write; but he trusted Balanchine, whose idea the Orpheus story was, and he enjoyed working with a choreographer who seemed to understand his music and whose native language was Russian. For the first time they worked closely together from the start, deciding on the details of the scenario (‘with Ovid and a classical dictionary in hand’, the composer later recalled), and agreeing on the essential tone, which would treat the well-known subject as little more than a pretext for a kind of formal/musical/spatial geometry, endowed with significance by the merest framework of narrative. For the first performance, at New York’s City Center in April 1948, the designs were done by Isamu Noguchi, who was known mainly as a sculptor. So the plastic qualities of the work were emphasized in every dimension, and its narrative elements correspondingly downplayed.

Stravinsky’s score, though routinely included among his neoclassical works, is in many ways quite unlike anything that precedes it. During the war, in America (of which he became a citizen in 1945), he had fulfilled a string of more or less openly commercial commissions, while working quietly on two eventual masterpieces—the Symphony in three movements and the Mass—which he found for a long time hard to crystallize in his mind, perhaps for lack of any likely performance. The uncertainties of war seem to have drawn him back to the church, and also to his Russian inheritance. And at some point he became intrigued by medieval music, especially the Ars Nova of the fourteenth century, with its decorative lines and intricate polyphonic techniques.

All these influences left their mark, however obliquely, on Orpheus, while to some extent directing it towards the more esoteric aspects of the next and final phase of his music, represented on the present disc by Agon. Orpheus is not in any sense a serial work; but it does hint at a new austerity and intensity that might suggest a breaking away from the more mechanical aspects of neoclassicism. Compared with the brusque, almost hearty opening of Jeu de cartes, the introduction of Orpheus has a repressed, secretive quality. Orpheus weeps for Eurydice, the stage direction informs us, but with his back to the audience, standing motionless. Later, as the Angel of Death leads him into Hades, the Furies protest, it seems, mainly in undertones (and soon submit to the beauty of Orpheus’ playing). Then, at the crucial moment when Orpheus tears the bandage from his eyes and looks back at Eurydice, who at once falls dead, the music responds with a bar of complete silence. Even the Pas d’action in which the Bacchantes tear Orpheus to pieces is truly violent only for a few bars, which must have seemed a very strange turn of style for the composer of The Rite of Spring.

Having got his pair of classical ballets, Kirstein was soon pestering Stravinsky for a third score to give him a complete evening of star works for his company, meanwhile rechristened the New York City Ballet. His fertile mind kept throwing up possible subjects: something from the Odyssey, T S Eliot’s Sweeney, and a visionary idea Balanchine had had for ‘a competition before the gods … reanimated by a series of historic dances … as if time called the tune, and the dances which began quite simply in the sixteenth century took fire in the twentieth and exploded’. What neither Kirstein nor Balanchine seems to have known was that Stravinsky, after conducting the premiere of his Rake’s Progress in Venice in September 1951, had undergone a creative crisis, partly as a result of his first encounter with the severe and complex serial music of the post-war generation of composers in Germany and France, and was now engaged in a radical overhaul of his compositional technique. Just when Kirstein was bombarding him with ideas that presupposed another classical project, Stravinsky was writing small vocal and instrumental works in a spikier modern style using a limited serial method distantly derived from Schoenberg and Webern. And when at last a contract was signed and Stravinsky started work on the new ballet at the end of 1953, its plan was studiously unclassical, completely plotless, and musically somewhat speculative. By the time it was finished, some four years later, Agon had turned out unlike anything Kirstein can conceivably have envisaged when he first broached the project nine years earlier.

He might just possibly have recognized Balanchine’s ‘visionary’ idea in the musical scheme. Though completely abstract and devoid of any stage narrative, Agon (the Greek word for a contest or competition) clearly derives its musical design from the idea of a series of antique dances which explode into the twentieth century. Kirstein had at one point sent Stravinsky a seventeenth-century dance manual with music examples, and the composer plundered this volume for rhythmic and melodic ideas which, however, he mostly twisted beyond recognition. The idioms survive in dances like the Sarabande-Step, Gaillarde and Bransle, while the Pas de quatre and Pas de deux are, in name at least, echoes of the later classicisms we saw also in Jeu de cartes and Orpheus. But musically these pieces view the past at best down a long tunnel of musical history. Listen to the violin solo in the sarabande, with its tortuous chromatic embellishments, or try to catch the dance rhythm in the galliard, with its astonishing reinvention of the orchestra (double basses with flutes at the top, thick cello and viola chords at the bottom, and in the middle a barely audible canon at the fifth between mandoline and harp). The so-called ‘Coda’ to the galliard was Stravinsky’s first experiment in proper twelve-note serialism, and bizarrely he modelled the solo violin writing here on the Violin Concerto of Berg, a composer as remote from him aesthetically as one would think possible.

At this point in his ballet, Stravinsky put it aside in order to compose the Canticum sacrum for the Venice Biennale of 1956. But this hiatus is not the reason for the rapid changes of style that mark Agon out. The changes were built into the idea. And how brilliantly they convince, as the music flows increasingly towards the fifties modernism that had so impressed Stravinsky on his 1951 visit to Europe, then cuts back, with irresistible insouciance, to the quasi-tonal (neoclassical?) music of the opening. The speed and imaginative range of this twenty-minute score thrilled its first New York audiences, in December 1957, every bit as much as Balanchine’s abstract choreography, based pointedly on the number 12, and with the eight female and four male dancers in rehearsal costume and taking up their positions prosaically for each dance to the fascinating strains of the machine-like interlude music. ‘The balcony’, Edwin Denby wrote, ‘stood up shouting and whistling … Downstairs, people came out into the lobby, their eyes bright as if the piece had been champagne.’ And the Herald Tribune critic, Walter Terry, thought Agon ‘quite possibly the most brilliant ballet creation of our day … True, Agon is not warm, not overtly human, but its very coolness is refreshing and it generates excitement because it totally ignores human foibles, dramatic situation, and concentrates wholly on the miracle of the dancing body.’

Stephen Walsh © 2009

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