Regarded as 'the best chamber orchestra in the world' (The Daily Telegraph) the Chamber Orchestra of Europe perform Stravinsky's Apollon Musagète, conceived as a ballet blanc, and the Pulcinella suite, a ballet based on some of Pergolesi's music.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
Without a doubt, Stravinsky … bore with him the wound of his emigration … [H]is only home was music, all of music by all musicians, the very history of music … He did all he could to feel at home there: he lingered in each room of that mansion, touched every corner, stroked every piece of the furniture; he went from the music of ancient folklore to Pergolesi, who gave him Pulcinella …, to the other Baroque masters, without whom his Apollon musagète … would be unimaginable. (Testaments Betrayed, trans. L. Asher)
While Stravinsky swiftly became a cosmopolitan composer, speaking the international language of modern ‘Western’ music, the sting of his estrangement never left him. His roots remained planted in Russian soil.
The initial idea for Pulcinella was suggested to Stravinsky by Sergey Diaghilev, impresario of the famous Ballets Russes company, and the man responsible for bringing Stravinsky his first international success via his commission of the music for The Firebird. All Diaghilev wanted on this occasion was arrangements of some music by – as he thought at the time – the 18th-century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. The choreographer Léonide Massine had devised the story and Pablo Picasso had been engaged to design the production; Manuel de Falla had already declined the invitation to compose the music. At first, it seems, Stravinsky was decidedly nonplussed at the suggestion. But Diaghilev persuaded him at least to consult transcriptions of the music made both in Naples and at the British Museum. Stravinsky was instantly smitten: ‘I looked, and I fell in love’, love’ he recalled.
Pulcinella was premiered on 15th May 1920 by the Ballets Russes at the Opéra in Paris, where it was billed simply as ‘music by Pergolesi, arranged and orchestrated by Igor Stravinsky’. Yet the work subsequently came to be identified more directly with Stravinsky as composer rather than arranger, in part a consequence of the concert suites he made of the score, including the version from 1922 (revised 1949) heard on this recording. While Stravinsky later asserted that the ‘remarkable thing about Pulcinella is not how much but how little has been added or changed’, the alterations are significant enough to turn the music instantly into something unmistakably of the 20th century. Stravinsky began by working directly onto the transcriptions Diaghilev had given him, subtly annotating the melodies and bass lines of arias by Pergolesi, trio sonata movements by Gallo, and even a tarantella by Wassenaer. Sometimes the result was just a representation of the original in Stravinsky’s own accent. No-one could mistake the trombone and double-bass melody of the ‘Vivo’ for anything other than Stravinsky, even though every note of Pergolesi’s music is still present. There are cunning harmonic touches, anachronistic pedal points and off-beat accents that reveal the thumbprint of the arranger, but it remains a loving, albeit humorous, homage to Pergolesi. The same is true of the opening ‘Sinfonia’ (original music by Gallo). Elsewhere, however, Stravinsky declares his hand more decisively. In the ‘Serenata’, for instance, he adds an unchanging drone (an open fifth), which denies the music its forward movement and whose resulting dissonances bestow a languid, melancholic air. The ‘Finale’ is radically recomposed, repeating bars and moving them around, adding new harmonies and shifting downbeats, resulting in a rhythmically energised music that is categorically Stravinskian and, one might say, almost as Russian as it is Italian.
Pulcinella was Stravinsky’s discovery of the past, ‘the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course – the first of many love affairs in that direction – but it was a look in the mirror, too’. Despite its obvious dependence on the music of the past, Pulcinella represented an important turning point in Stravinsky’s artistic development. Just as, after the First World War, Picasso had felt the need to seek a rapprochement with the traditional forms of art he had once rejected so that he could move forward, equally Pulcinella revealed to Stravinsky the possibilities of engagement with all kinds of earlier music in order to renew his own musical language. Crucial, though, was not the material he took (it could come from anywhere – he described himself as suffering from a rare form of kleptomania!) but his attitude to it. Everything he touched he made his own.
If Pulcinella was the epiphany, then Apollon musagète must surely be the apogee of what became known as Stravinsky’s ‘neoclassicism’. Commissioned by the American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Stravinsky chose, as he explains in his autobiography, ‘to compose a ballet founded on moments or episodes in Greek mythology plastically interpreted by dancing of the so-called classical school’. He wanted to create what he termed a ‘ballet blanc’, a score of great blanc’ purity and unity, in which violent contrasts were avoided and all elements were pared down to their simplest. Hence it is scored for strings alone and makes almost exclusive use of diatonic harmony (the equivalent of the ‘white notes’ on the piano keyboard). For Georges Balanchine, choreographer of the 1928 European premiere, the work was a revelation: ‘In its discipline and restraint, in its sustained oneness of tone and feeling … [Apollon] seemed to tell me that I could dare not to use everything, that I, too, could eliminate’. The result was the perfect union of music and dance in the expression of pure, classical beauty.
And how did Stravinsky achieve this sense of order as symbolised by the Greek god Apollo? One means was to look to poetry. Each dance explores a basic iambic (short–long) pattern; the ‘Variation of Calliope’ (the muse of poetry) is headed by two lines from Boileau and takes the twelve-syllable lines of the alexandrine as its rhythmic model. Another means was to allude to the stateliness of French Baroque dances, such as the ouverture style of the opening ‘Birth of Apollo’ or the pavane-like second ‘Variation of Apollo’. The closing ‘Apotheosis’, Apotheosis’ in which Apollo leads the three Muses towards Parnassus, brings together the various rhythmic elements of the work in music that is not just serenely beautiful but also seems to speak of something deeper and darker, something beyond reason and order. Stravinsky looks back to ancient Greece, but is ultimately only able to see the reflection of his own tragic age. Even when at his most classical, we hear, once again, the voice of Stravinsky the exile.
Jonathan Cross © 2009