Stravinsky: Petrushka; The Rite of Spring

COMPOSERS: Stravinsky
LABELS: RCA Gold Seal
WORKS: Petrushka; The Rite of Spring
PERFORMER: Philadelphia Orchestra/Stokowski
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 61394 2 ADD mono
That mining the archives can be immense fun is well illustrated by listening to French baritone Victor Maurel’s uproarious, though superbly articulated, 1907 rendering of ‘Quand’ero paggio’ (Falstaff ) on Nimbus’s The Era of Adelina Patti, with its stanzas interspersed with enthusiastic shouts and applause. Nimbus brings the voice into immediate proximity via a technical process that works particularly well with acoustic recordings. Maurel (Verdi’s first Iago) rubs shoulders with Patti herself (frail but delicate), the astonishing 80-year-old Lucien Fugère (you’d never guess his age from his singing), and many others, including Nellie Melba.

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The sum effect of RCA’s Melba disc is to explain her appeal, or at least as much of it as primitive sound allows. Her Verdi is crystalline, pure and touchingly characterised, her vocal attack keen. The musician in Melba informs her self-accompaniments to songs by Hahn and Debussy and renders her coloratura singing particularly attractive.

American soprano Lily Pons charmed a later generation, but her singing had little of Melba’s charisma. Pons’s ‘Bell Song’ (Lakmé ) is sweet, accurate and sprightly, but to compare it with, say, Amelita Galli-Curci’s, is to reveal a certain lack of pure personality. Still, we should be grateful to hear Pons lavish affection on Debussy and Fauré (a rare privilege), and her Verdi with baritone Giuseppe de Luca has a real sense of theatre.

Ezio Pinza, one of the few great bel canto basses, had theatrical presence to spare; just try his commanding delivery of Ernani’s ‘Infelice!’ (a previously unissued take), or the cosseting warmth of his Italian art songs. This really is great singing, although Pinza’s Sarastro sounds rather like a magisterial automaton.

Singing via an instrument has become something of a dying art, which partially explains the appeal of American cellist Gregor Piatigorsky’s Don Quixote. Both he and Charles Munch invest Strauss’s vivid narrative with a wealth of tonal colour, and their heart-rending account of Don Quixote’s death is especially poignant. The Brahms Double Concerto with Milstein and Reiner is another unequivocal success: dynamic and appreciative of the music’s autumnal hues.

An earlier season springs to life under Stokowski, who moulds Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with more care for texture than for clarity and rhythm; but when it comes to Petrushka, Stokowski is master puppeteer, taunting his subject to sudden bursts of frustration and conjuring up all the fun of the fair. It’s a great performance by any standards.

A quite different Stravinsky emerges on EMI’s Igor Stravinsky Plays and Conducts: austere, deadpan, sophisticated. These are the composer’s earliest recordings, made in Europe and fascinatingly different from his softer American remakes. The Symphony of Psalms is particularly imposing, but The Wedding – sung very much in the King’s English – sounds like a Russian peasant wedding as catered for by Claridges.

The image of urbanity suited Artur Rubinstein better, although his pre-war Chopin recordings have far greater drive and impetuosity than their stereo successors. Add elegance for the Mazurkas, and proud bearing for the Polonaises, and you have a pretty appetising interpretative recipe.

More so, perhaps, than with Solomon’s rather health-conscious Beethoven. These admirably thought-through performances are beautifully executed, yet they somehow fail to engage the emotions (Op. 111 excepted), and that in spite of their obvious intelligence and pianistic refinement. But I admit to favouring a more outwardly demonstrative style of Beethoven playing, and respond less than some to Solomon’s much-admired interpretative humility.

Turn then to Albert Schweitzer’s majestic, clumsy and stylistically anachronistic Bach and there’s expression in abundance; the fingers might occasionally be weak, but the spirit is strong. I adored it all (the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor included), but was amused to see that in the accompanying booklet, one of Bach’s BWV numbers is misprinted BMW. Alas, this one certainly wouldn’t pass its MOT!.

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Robert Cowan