Stravinsky: Violin Concerto, Etc / Frautschi, Craft, Et Al

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STRAVINSKY Violin Concerto. 1 Zvezdolikiy. 2 Symphonies of Wind Instruments. 3 Le sacre du printemps (1911-1913; 1947/1967) 4 Robert Craft, cond; Jennifer Frautschi (vn); 1 Gregg Smith Singers; 2 O of St. Luke’s; 2 20th Century Classics Ens; 3 Philharmonia O NAXOS 8.557508 (67:42)

The first thing that strikes one about this disc is the marvelous sound of the orchestra; Craft achieves a balance of chamber and orchestral character that fits the Violin Concerto perfectly. Of course the musicians and engineering team deserve credit, too, but it is Craft’s vision, understanding, and ability to get exactly what he wants that make the difference. The composer’s 1960 stereo recording with Isaac Stern is rhythmically square (and Stern’s energetic playing is sabotaged by ugly recorded sound), whereas Craft swings nicely. Stravinsky’s 1930s performance with Samuel Dushkin is closer to this one. If I seem to be favoring Craft over Stravinsky as an interpreter and conductor of the latter’s music, so be it. Now in his eighties, Craft is surpassing most of his former efforts, and many of these Naxos recordings stand as the finest of all. I am reminded of the truism that Schoenberg’s works suffered from being so badly played for half a century: well, so did many of Stravinsky’s, beginning with the works immediately following the big three ballets. Craft’s recent Les noces , for example, is superior to any earlier recording.

Getting back to the Violin Concerto, Frautschi is a superb young violinist who has specialized in 20th- and 21st-century music. She plays the bright yet silky “ex-Cadiz” Stradivarius, which stands out from the ensemble or fits right in, as required. Whether Frautschi or Craft is driving this performance doesn’t matter; the results are wonderful: savory, clean, punchy, and yet light. I am thoroughly beguiled by Itzhak Perlman’s beautiful playing of this Concerto on DG, and by the Boston Symphony’s eloquent accompaniment, but this performance does the piece more justice.

Zvezdolikiy is better known by its French title, Le roi des étoiles (“King of the Stars”), but Craft translates it as “The Star-Faced One.” I think I’ve encountered this recording before, but I can’t place it—this series petered out on two other labels (MusicMasters, Koch International) before Naxos came to its rescue. No matter: this is a fine reading by excellent forces, very well recorded. The booklet offers an English text. Craft plays the original score of Symphonies of Wind Instruments (the composer led the simplified 1947 version in Sony’s “The Recorded Legacy”) and makes it sound surprisingly mellow, at one point almost jolly.

Stravinsky was always touching up his music, every time he performed anything. My Boosey & Hawkes score of Le sacre says “Revised 1947, Re-engraved edition 1967,” which I think means only that this 1990s publication duplicates a 1967 one. Of course a Stravinsky- or Craft-led performance needn’t be limited by a published score. Oh well, thought I, Craft’s always brilliant, always fascinating program notes will explain all. But Craft writes only a “chronicle” of the composition and early performances, never getting past April 6, 1914. Whatever “1911–1913; 1947/1967” means, this performance sounds as if most of the awkward moments have been cleaned up, but the baby has been thrown out with the bath water. The orchestral playing is less vibrant than that of the London Symphony in Craft’s 1995 Koch recording, which later appeared on Naxos ( Fanfare 29:3). A too-warm recording doesn’t help; timpani and bass drums are a bit distant and muffled, which will never do in this music. In the final Sacrificial Dance, the playing becomes a bit sloppy. I note that this performance lasts 33:41, the earlier one 31:58; the difference is certainly noticeable. Both performances were recorded at Abbey Road Studio 1, this one in 2006. Perhaps the revised score explains why modern performances seldom thrill the way early ones did (and still do), in particular Salonen’s recent Los Angeles Philharmonic SACD spectacular being less satisfying than Stravinsky’s cramped, monaural 1940 recording with the New York Philharmonic.

At Naxos prices, you can afford to buy this CD just for the Concerto.

FANFARE: James H. North

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8557508

  • UPC: 747313250820

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Igor Stravinsky

  • Conductor: Robert Craft

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: 20th Century Classics Ensemble, Gregg Smith Singers, Orchestra of St. Luke's, Philharmonia Orchestra

  • Performer: Jennifer Frautschi