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.

2 Responses to “Stravinsky: Orpheus / Jeux de Cartes / Agon”
  1. Stephen Hartke says:

    One must assume — or perhaps hope — that reviewers on this website, such as Mr. “Muse”, are not paid, for how else could they get away with being so fatuous and ignorant in print. This particular review is really not a review at all, but rather a catalogue of Mr. Muse’s prejudices.

    From reading most of his other postings, it is fairly clear to me that Mr. Muse loves to flaunt the music (and art) historical knowledge he thinks he has gleaned from program notes, but he really lacks any profound understanding of it. I do not say this simply because his opinions irritate me — although they do — but because so much of what he says here and elsewhere is so profoundly ignorant.

    In this review he seems to be taking Stravinsky to task for his ‘abstraction,’ as if that were inherently a bad thing. If Mr. Muse knew anything about Stravinsky’s music and music history in general, he would hear that “Jeux de cartes” is actually one of Stravinsky’s most conventional scores, a throwback, in fact, to the spirit of late 19th century Russian ballet, and, as such, no more abstract than “Swan Lake.” Music *is* essentially abstract (when it is not texted) because it is, at heart, a nonrepresentational language.

    As far as I can tell, the only purpose for a Mr. Muse review is for this preening self-important pseudonymous nonentity to show off his cleverness. But he is also very lazy, and it should be remarked what a considerable portion of each of his reviews is simply a rehashing of liner notes, though usually twisted in one way or another to his own curmudgeonly ends. His remarks on “Agon” are a case in point, showing both this trait and further, his fundamental ignorance of the music he is discussing: He states that “in the second Interlude … [Stravinsky] include[s] music of human warmth and intimacy in spite of himself.” Leaving aside for the moment the nauseating condescension at the end of this sentence — what great thing have *you* ever achieved in *your* life, Mr. Muse? — this remark is completely nonsensical in singling out the “second” of the Interludes in this way because it is, in fact, identical to the first one. And then what is this nonsense about “the weakness of the score” being in the “torturous twisting of the Bransle, Galliard, Sarabande and other antique dances out of recognition”? I would venture to say that our Mr. Muse wouldn’t recognize a genuine Bransle (Gai, Simple or de Poitou — and I bet you don’t know what I’m referring to, Mr. Muse!) if one bit him on the ass. And so what if Stravinsky’s takes on these ancient dance forms stray from the exemplars he gleaned from Mersenne? You can’t exactly dance to Bach’s Sarabandes and Gigues either.

    Another trait of Mr. Muse’s reviewing style, and a rather pathetic one at that, is his hedging at the very end when he says that this recording will please those who like this sort of thing. It’s all rather like the old Borscht belt joke: one diner at a hotel says “The food here is so terrible!” “Yes,” says another, “and the portions are so small!” Alas, but nothing is smaller than Mr. Muse’s heart.

  2. At least the folks at S21 actually review our recordings. Alex Ross and Gramophone are paid way too much and have yet to review any of our John Cage recordings.

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