With Works of Igor Stravinsky, Sony/BMG is offering Sony Classics' massive Stravinsky box of 22 CDs, which once retailed at a faint-inducing price tag, for less than one-sixth of the original cost. Certainly more of these will get around than the old "Recorded Legacy" box did; so prohibitively expensive, such boxes would sit at the counter of finer classical music stores for years as a never-purchased luxury item. In the new edition, you don't get much aside from the same 22 CDs in cardboard sleeves and a paper-thin booklet, which contains a highly generalized, four-page-long appreciation of Stravinsky's artistry and as close to the most basic projection of the ...
With Works of Igor Stravinsky, Sony/BMG is offering Sony Classics' massive Stravinsky box of 22 CDs, which once retailed at a faint-inducing price tag, for less than one-sixth of the original cost. Certainly more of these will get around than the old "Recorded Legacy" box did; so prohibitively expensive, such boxes would sit at the counter of finer classical music stores for years as a never-purchased luxury item. In the new edition, you don't get much aside from the same 22 CDs in cardboard sleeves and a paper-thin booklet, which contains a highly generalized, four-page-long appreciation of Stravinsky's artistry and as close to the most basic projection of the recording data as one can imagine. Aside from the marketing angle, Sony/BMG's Works of Igor Stravinsky has all the vicissitudes of the original Sony Classical set, apart from the old set's monolithic dimensions. No other composer born in the 1880s -- unless you count Leopold Stokowski as a "composer" -- left behind a more extensive body of recordings than Stravinsky. Stravinsky didn't make his first recording until he was 43 years old, only picking up conducting as an avocation a couple of years after that. The vast majority of Stravinsky's recordings were made for CBS Masterworks starting in 1957 -- when he was 75 years old -- and extending to 1967, when he made his last public appearances, and Works of Igor Stravinsky includes, in one way or another, some 90 percent of the music Stravinsky is known to have composed. Save the inclusion of both the "Firebird Ballet" and its corresponding suite, alternate incarnations of works are not found here; the dreaded, posthumously discovered "Sonata in F sharp minor" for piano is likewise lacking, but so are several of Stravinsky's other piano pieces and the "Three Pieces for String Quartet." Apart from that, Works of Igor Stravinsky runs the Stravinskïan gamut, from the opera "The Rake's Progress" in its entirety to "Epitaphium," a late career tidbit lasting all of 70 seconds. There are some stunning gems here -- Stravinsky's 1961 recording of the "Firebird Ballet" and 1960 "Rite of Spring" are fabulous, completely authoritative performances. There is a compelling "Agon" from Los Angeles in 1957, which was the first recording Columbia Masterworks issued in stereo; the 1960 "Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa," never bettered; and an intense, palpitating "L'histoire du Soldat Suite" from 1961. The whole of disc 12, which consists of short instrumental works such as the "Octet for winds," "Concertino for 12 Instruments," "Ragtime for 11 Instruments," and the "Ebony Concerto" with Benny Goodman, is all very impressive. Some of the vocal items as well -- his songs as sung by Cathy Berberian, Adrienne Albert, and Donald Gramm, singers Stravinsky liked and worked with regularly -- are not only well done but carry the indelible stamp of authority that only Stravinsky could have imparted in such works, as many of them were new when Stravinsky recorded them. On the other hand, some devotees of Stravinsky tend to view him as his own worst enemy as a conductor of his own music, and much of his work for CBS records was the evidence that galvanized such a reputation for him. Few composers would prefer to record everything they've written, and there were many things in Stravinsky's catalog that about which he simply wasn't very enthusiastic. Stravinsky's sluggish and one-dimensional recording of the early "Symphony in E flat" seems to confirm his low opinion of the work, a viewpoint successfully challenged some 30 years later in Mikhail Pletnev's dazzling recording of it for Deutsche Grammophon. Indeed, no one who has heard Spanish conductor Josep Pons' sparkling and effervescent recording of "Pulcinella" would likely prefer Stravinsky's own plodding, pedestrian, and badly balanced 1965 account. Stravinsky was a difficult conductor to follow, and even though he had some of the best musicians on both American coasts and in Canada to work with, the results were not always predictable. Generally, the further forward from 1962 you get, the more difficult it is for Stravinsky to contend with the demands of his craft. It is a pity that Sony/BMG could not have revisited this package before re-releasing it so cheaply; some of the things Stravinsky recorded for RCA Victor before the advent of his Columbia contract, which is now accessible, could have been added. A good example would be a shimmering 1950 account of "Apollo" that runs rings around the rather careful and pleasingly patrician 1964 version heard here. A few of Stravinsky's 1930s vintage French EMI recordings are included as "historical" entries; on that score, what about the 1945 recording of "Ebony Concerto" with Woody Herman, or the 1940 "Rite of Spring," both recordings made by CBS Masterworks? However, such benefit would have cut into whatever profit margin there could be on a package offered at the equivalent of about two bucks a disc; to obtain such an extensive and comprehensive offering of Stravinsky conducting his own works for such a modest outlay is a hard bargain to resist.
- Andrew Clements
An exceptional document.... Whatever the minor shortcomings, though, this is the 20th-century's greatest composer conducting all his own works.