BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov, conductor
This Hyperion offering of three significant works from Igor Stravinsky’s post-Sacre du Printemps period combine modernist and neo-classical features. Turning his back on the Three Famous Ballets We All Know & Love, the composer moved boldly into areas where he left most of his listeners behind, never to recapture them. In the process, he moved in the direction of increasing abstraction, ritualized scenarios and the ideal of pure music for pure dance.
Taking them in the order in which he composed them, Jeux de Cartes (Game of Cards, 1936) marks a step in the direction Stravinsky was taking in the interest of a more abstract, less Late Russian Romantic idiom. Certainly, it is hard to get emotionally involved with the characters in this one-act ballet. The Pas de quatre for the Four Queens and the Battle of the Spades and Hearts may seem rather anemic to a listener who has experienced Petrouchka, but these are after all, as Lewis Carroll’s Alice would have said, “nothing but a pack of cards.” Stravinsky himself was an avid card player, but Poker was not his game, so the unfolding strategy may seem a trifle odd to Poker aficionados. The plot consists mainly of the intrigues of the Joker, careless in his imagined omnipotence because of his status as wild card. Spending all his energy trying to fill an inside straight, he is solidly trumped by a Royal Flush.
Orpheus (1946) was as close as Stravinsky would come to complete stasis, with the protagonist immobile with grief for the loss of Eurydice at the opening of the ballet, his tears frozen, his back to the audience. The choreographer, George Balanchine, visualized a series of “stations,” much like the Stations of the Cross, in the place of a more conventional story and action. At the crucial moment when Orpheus tears the bandage from his eyes and gazes back at Eurydice, the composer responds, significantly, with a bar of silence from the orchestra. And even the Pas de Action in which, as we know, it is the function of the Bacchantes to tear Orpheus limb from limb, is surprisingly subdued in its short-lived violence.
Agon (1956), the last of these three ballets Stravinsky composed at the request of Lincoln Kirstein for Balanchine’s American Ballet, was his crowning achievement in terms of abstract music for a pure dance unencumbered by any semblance of a story. For those for whom the ideal of the ballet is “the miracle of the dancing body” (Walter Terry, New York Tribune), this was the realization of that ideal: no enchanted princesses, wicked sorcerers or swooning, lovesick princes, just twelve dancers in rehearsal costume, in a series of single, double and triple pas de quatre, duos and trios. Stravinsky even flirted for the first time, in the Coda to the Galliard, with 12-tone serialism. (In the second Interlude, however, he did include music of human warmth and intimacy in spite of himself). The weakness of the score lies not in Stravinsky’s modernism, but in his torturous twisting of the Bransle, Galliard, Sarabande and other antique dances out of recognition.
Ilan Volkov, the young Israeli-born chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, does a commendable job keeping the rhythmic tautness and lucidity of Stravinsky’s music continually in the forefront of our consciousness. The structural qualities of all three ballets, and in particular Agon, receive all their due emphasis. Those who like these facets of the many-sided Igor Stravinsky will find the performances to their liking.