Kitayenko Presents Early Stravinsky

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STRAVINSKY: Symphony No. 1. Suites Nos. 1 & 2 for Chamber Orchestra / Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra; Dmitri Kitayenko, cond / Oehms Classics OC 1888

Dmitri Kitayenko here gives us a fascinating glimpse into the musical mind of young Igor Stravinsky, only 23 years old when he finished this first symphony under the strict tutelage of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The older composer recognized that Stravinsky had tremendous talent, but kept trying to rein it in to more conventional forms and orchestration. Even at the symphony’s premiere, given at a private concert in 1907, Rimsky kept making critical comments such as “that is too cumbersome; be careful when you use the trombones in the middle range.”

Yet it’s fascinating to hear Stravinsky at a time when he was still very much under the spell of late Romantic Russian music, not only Rimsky but also one of his early idols, Tchaikovsky, as well as a bit of Glazunov. And yet, you can still hear a bit of Stravinsky himself coming through all of this; in fact, it’s probably what disturbed Rimsky-Korsakov the most, that his talented pupil was already reaching for something that was not late-Romantic gushiness. In fact, in those moments when you hear little running figures underneath the melodic line, moments that Rimsky probably liked, your mind keeps telling you that Stravinsky probably added those things to please him rather than to express himself. There are formulaic “echo” passages, where one section of the orchestra repeats what another has just played, that also sound as if they were stuck in to get a good grade. Yet it is exactly those moments that don’t “fit in” where you hear a genius at work, even if still in the pupae stage.

The question that arises from hearing this recording, aside from Kitayenko’s wonderfully phrased and emotionally committed performance, is whether or not this work should receive more exposure than it does, which right now is practically nil. It’s the same question that one could apply to Beethoven’s early chamber works for flute and strings, which are pleasant and clever but not in any sense “Beethovenian” (or very early Debussy, which the composer himself tried to disown in later years). I think it could very well be performed occasionally, possibly in a program that also contains one of his mature symphonies to show where he eventually went. Even with a second movement that sounds for all the world like a piece that Tchaikovsky left out of Nutcracker, it is definitely well-written music and has a certain profile. It’s certainly a very Russian-sounding symphony, even more so than Scriabin’s exotic fantasies of the era which lay outside the mainstream, and none of the music here is nearly as banal as that of Rachmaninov’s large-scale symphonies and concertos or, for that matter, most of Rimsky-Korsakov’s bombastic rubbish.

The third, slow movement is probably the most original of the four, with little outbursts of trombones and percussion that look forward to the mature Stravinsky before falling back on Romantic figures. Yet even in the last movement, you can hear the motor rhythms of Stravinsky taking over an echt-Romantic theme. All in all, then, a curiosity, yet one that will undoubtedly have its appeal, especially for classical audiences who still haven’t gotten over Le Sacre du Printemps.

The two Suites for Small Orchestra are, by contrast, mature Stravinsky, written in 1917 and 1920 and based on piano four hands pieces he had written just a few years earlier. This is the beginning of his neo-Classic period, just a little while before he started writing Les Noces and the ballets based on earlier music such as Pulcinella (and, later in the 1920s, Le Baiser de la Fee). Kitayenko has a good grasp of this music as well, playing it with appropriate delicacy and a bit of wit. Interestingly, some of the orchestral “sound” one heard in the symphony can be heard here as well, refined and geared more towards the winds and brass than the strings.

It’s an excellent and interesting disc, but I’m sure your decision to acquire it will depend on how you feel about a more Romantic-sounding Stravinsky in the symphony.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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