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Hyperion Records

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Orpheus by Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
Track(s) taken from CDA67698
Recording details: December 2008
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: September 2009
Total duration: 21 minutes 31 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 'Ballet in three Deals'
1936; commissioned by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein for the American Ballet and first performed by them in April 1937 in New York, Stravinsky conducting

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The first product of the association between Balanchine and Stravinsky 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).

from notes by Stephen Walsh © 2009

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