Leonidas Kavakos/Péter Nagy: Stravinsky/Bach (ECM New Series 1855)



Leonidas Kavakos violin
Péter Nagy piano
Recorded October 2002, Radio Studio DRS, Zurich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Mirrors or two sides of the same coin? This electrifying album by Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos and Hungarian pianist Péter Nagy answers the question: neither. Stravinsky was indebted to Bach, as so many who put pen to staves ever will be, and explored the Baroque master’s architectures to the very end—even working, the story goes, on Bach transcriptions on his death bed. Yet the Russian iconoclast accomplished a remarkable something that set him apart. Unlike so many before him, he did not shine his light through Bach’s prism but rather shined Bach’s through his own.

Stravinsky’s crucible in this regard was at its hottest in the Duo concertant (1931/32). One of two pieces written for violinist Samuel Dushkin (this for violin and piano, the other his 1931 Violin Concerto), it was not in a format the composer favored at the time but one he nonetheless reconciled through neoclassical rigor. Oscillating between the earthly and the mythological, the piece its composer called a “musical versification” finds unity in gradually joining the two. The first and last of its five movements—the Cantilène and the Dithyrambe—bear mysterious nomenclature. The one blossoms from a pianistic blush to an overpowering charge from the bow. The other drips with lachrymose quality, suspended high above Olympus casting threads to mortal hearts down below. Between them is another dyad, this of two “Epilogues” of friction and protraction in turn. And with them is the sprightly Gigue, one of Stravinsky’s finest moments, played here with integrity.

What sets Kavakos’s playing apart is his ability to be at once fluid and sharp, a quality that lends itself well to the above but also to the below, for in the Partita No. 1 in B minor that follows we hear exactly this contradiction at play. Although two centuries separate these works, Bach’s solo violin masterpiece feels remarkably present in this rendering. Kavakos gives the almighty Allemande a stately treatment, beginning with it a series of four movements and their faster “Doubles.” The first of the latter reveals barest tuning issues in Kavakos’s instrument, but these are quickly brushed away by the Corrente, which he plays with especial care, in the process exploiting the record’s engineering at full potential. The Sarabande likewise unfolds in its dance of blade and water toward the final Tempo di Borea and its Double, by which the music reaches a cavernous interior filled with stalagmites pontific.

The program returns to Stravinsky with the 1933 Suite Italienne for violin and piano. Based on his ballet Pulcinella, it proves the glistening counterpart to the Duo concertant, the spring to its thaw. The affirmation of its introductory motives barely hints at the fiery Tarantella which is the piece’s prime turn—a ball of yarn expertly unraveled. Kavakos’s hefty double stops nourish their flames on Nagy’s pointillist sparks. The folk-like Scherzino is another highlight and sets up the Minuet and Finale with authorial flourish.

From these concentrations we return once more to Bach, whose Sonata No. 1 in G minor reveals further affinity. From the cautious first half to the dawn-like awakening of the third movement and into the forward thinking of the final Presto, it develops itself like one long proclamation—slowed here and sped up there—until it glows.

Those thinking of buying this album for ECM’s treatment of the Bach will want to check out Holloway and Kremer’s versions first. In any event, the Sonatas and Partitas will always overshadow their interpreter. For the Stravinsky? Look no further.

Igor Stravinsky: Orchestral Works (ECM New Series 1826)



Igor Stravinsky
Orchestral Works

Stuttgarter Kammerorchester
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded October 2002 at Liederhalle Stuttgart
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This reference recording of conductor Dennis Russell Davies’s account of Igor Stravinsky is proof that a conductor can make all the difference. Davies sprinkles the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester with life at every turn and in the process reintroduces us to a composer whose music is all too often neglected in spite of his fame. He’s either the Russian provocateur whose ballet The Rite of Spring caused a riot during its 1913 premier or the poster child for a now passé neoclassicism. We can be thankful for having recordings such as this to educate.

In light of this, Davies has assembled a program that brings together the known and the not so known, opening in the latter persuasion with the 1960 Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa ad CD annum. Stravinsky’s magisterial humility shines like light through the stained glass of his sources. As one might expect, brass figures heavily in these Baroque arrangements and recalls the matrix of Bach’s first Brandenberg Concerto. It is the thrill of the hunt and divine peace all rolled into one and paints Stravinsky as a skillful pastiche artist.

Davies and his musicians soften the neoclassical category by approaching the music as it presents itself to be. Consequently, a piece like the Danses Concertantes (1942) for chamber orchestra comes across as neither a reimagining nor a recycling of fashionable moods, but rather the exuberance of its own soundness. The halting rhythms and skillful wind writing—note, for instance, the bassoon in Variation IV—make for an enchanting experience all around.

Next is the Concerto in D (1946) for string orchestra, which here finds itself reborn in time. Its vivacious interior shows in the attention paid to dynamics and syncopation. The meat of its second movement sits comfortably between the two more strained slices above and below. The latter follows a line of agitation from which the rest is blended, leaving a cello to fade out of sight…

…only to resurface in the Apollon musagète of 1927/28. This ballet, written for Georges Ballanchine in two tableaux, finds the cello running through its half-waking dreams like remembrance. Its counterpart, the violin, makes similar orchestral encroachments, only to pull at the intertextual weave therein until a somber but spirited finish is all that remains.

Stravinsky’s is a macramé of inspiring proportions. Yet it is always surrounded by modesty, as if the very world might crumble were too many of its resources funneled into one place.