How to play Stravinsky: the challenges and joys of the great composer

Nine top musicians, conductors and composers on the challenges and joys of Stravinsky's music – and their recommendations for how to approach some of his more difficult compositions

How to play Stravinsky: the challenges and joys of the great composer

Conductor Ben Gernon on Stravinsky‘s The Firebird

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I find Stravinsky’s way of creating atmospheres really really fascinating. He has this great ability to shift the gears so quickly. Take for example the beginning of the Firebird: that’s what made me want to be a conductor – these first few tritonal bars: just imagine the darkness, of this magic that’s to come. Then all of a sudden you find the princesses dancing across the front of the stage, and the texture has completely changed: the woodwinds are a lot lighter, and I think the real challenge of conducting Stravinsky is finding a strong balance between making sure that the rhythm is absolutely correct and then finding the much more luxurious and arabesque, romantic side to his character.

Soprano Claire Booth on Stravinsky‘s vocal music

As a vocalist, listening to the sound world that Stravinsky creates, the challenge seems to be to be able to sing both within and outside the texture he creates. In terms of within, the music often seems to pass within individual instruments and there is clearly an interest in how sounds sort of melt together or change and move between each other. I think vocalists have to respond to that: they have to fit and weave in between the music as he’s created it. But on the other side, is the fact of the voice having text – Stravinsky has chosen to set text for a reason – so the singer needs to bring the text outside of the instrumental world. There is obviously a fine balance between bringing it outside and just slapping it on the top.

Choral conductor Simon Halsey on Stravinsky’s Mass

I am a choral conductor, and Stravinsky’s Mass, one of my favourite pieces, is a piece that is really difficult to get your head around. I have sung it, I have chorus-mastered it, I have conducted it, but I still don’t feel I have necessarily found the key to it. My dad conducted it in front of Stravinsky and I was there, and my uncle was singing the alto solo, and at the end of it my father was extremely nervous, because he had been conducting for a couple of hours , and Stravinsky hadn’t even moved a muscle. And he turned to Stravinsky and he said: ‘Mr Stravinsky how was it?’ And Stravinsky just said: ‘It was very nice, thank you!’

Pianist Beatrice Rana on Stravinsky‘s Petrushka

As a pianist, there is not just the transcription for the piano. As a pianist we have to consider that Petrushka is a piece written for the ballet, for dancers on stage. To see that choreographic aspect also in the hands of a pianist is quite interesting: the pianist can become also the conductor in this situation, which is something that adds more freedom – something that is not allowed of course in the ballet and with an orchestra of almost 70 elements. It is quite challenging – that’s true – Petrushka is one of the most difficult pieces ever written for the piano. But it becomes so fascinating, so much fun!

Percussionist Colin Currie on Stravinsky‘s The Soldier’s Tale

Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale is a wonderful piece to get to grips with. I have played it many times, usually without conductor. There’s lots and lots of rhythmic games, lots of mixed meters – it’s not just chugging along in 4/4, 2/4 – kind of staple time signatures. It’s switching between 5/8, 7/8 – but superimposed on top of those irregular numbers you might have quite regular rhythms going. For example, March Royale is a famous movement that will always make every single musician in the ensemble sit on the edge of their seats. As a percussionist you are kind of the lynchpin, you are holding the whole ensemble together. For a lot of percussionists it’s still one of the most evocative, and perfect bit of percussion writing in the repertoire.

Violinist Carolin Widmann on Stravinsky‘s The Fairy’s Kiss

A piece that is a bit neglected – and I think should be much better-known – is The Fairy’s Kiss. It is such a beautiful piece and it is based on Tchaikovsky’s themes, therefore it has these big melodies and it is very vocal, and it shows the violin very elegantly. I always say that it is a mixture of French elegance and Russian melodies. It is so gorgeous and it has so many beautiful little patterns – it really tells a story, really tells a fairy-tale. It is so beautiful yet is almost never played. I wish I could hear it more in concert halls.

Conductor Sakari Oramo on Stravinsky‘s approach to composition

I have the strong impression that Stravinsky actually didn’t want his music to be performed or interpreted in the sense that a performer would put his or her own feelings or emotions and even enthusiasm into it. He just wanted us to sort of purely produce the tones that he had put on paper. For me the main problem is how to get these characters working without putting my own emotional input into them. As a conductor I need to have various different approaches to Stravinsky’s music: there is not just one recipe that works for all of it, because Stravinsky is a figure that holds many figures inside.

Conductor Vasily Petrenko on the complexity of Stravinsky‘s writing

Those complex rhythmic patterns – they need to be played together, so when you are conducting you have to be extremely clear with your gestures. The musicians on the left of the orchestra, and on the right of the orchestra – if they play by ear, that might be late. So they have to trust you that the downbeat is where the downbeat looks, not where it sounds like sometimes. In all this complexity of Stravinsky’s chorus in fact there is simplicity inside, because quite often  it is one simple pattern on top of another simple pattern, where they mix. So when you rehearse you have to give clear indication to the musicians, as to what the pattern has to be played like and whom you have to listen within this pattern.

Composer Freya Waley-Cohen on Stravinsky‘s Symphony of Wind Instruments

As a composer, one of the pieces of Stravinsky’s that really opened up new worlds and new possibilities for me – and I still think about often when I am composing today – is his Symphony of Wind Instruments. I remember when I first heard it, looking at how he essentially has these different panels and uses them almost like a collage. But actually rather than being a cumulative collage effect, it’s almost as if he creates a sense of simultaneity between them, because he has these different worlds that he creates with them, but then juxtaposes them so starkly. It feels like the other world that you have just left is still going on in your memory and so when you come back to it you are ready for it.

These contributions were taken from the upcoming Radio 3 programme River of Music, a five-and-a-half-hour musical celebration of the music of Stravinsky. It will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 24 April as part of the station’s Stravinsky 50 project to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of the composer. 

Read our reviews of the latest Stravinsky recordings here

Find out more about Stravinsky and his works here

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