Arnold Newman’s iconic black and white photograph of Igor Stravinsky seated at a grand piano shows Stravinsky and the piano forming the shape of a single musical note.
Newman’s picture is a reminder that, during the 1920’s and ’30’s, Stravinsky depended on the international concert stage to support a large, extended family of Russian exiles living in Paris. Stravinsky’s fame grew hugely in the areas of ballet, opera, choral and orchestral music. His contributions to the literature of the piano not so much. This album brings Stravinsky’s piano music into focus.
Two of the works are from his Neo-classical period. Soloist Steven Osborne and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra led by Ilan Volkov form a single unit to produce music that balances passion and poise.
The Concerto for piano and wind instruments (1923-24) begins with discretely veiled emotion from funereal basses and horns, but soon picks up into a dance of dissonant piano skipping among winds. Return of the funereal march bookends the movement with a macabre wit, the union of feeling and awareness that is a hallmark of Stravinsky’s mind.
The Larghissimo colours the mood lyrical and romantic with distant horns. Osborne’s contemplative solo piano refined by his sense of tonal shading, brings back the solemn funereal note. The orchestra’s dissonant horns invoke the perspective of emotional as well as spatial distance, heightening a drama that seems to arouse passion in the piano.
The Finale lends a funereal tinge to the march that Osborne’s virile piano seems to be trying to outrun. Soloist and orchestra settle into unison for a while. The march takes on burlesque properties. Piano goes on tip-toes; the orchestral march goes funereal. The conclusion, marked ‘Stringendo’, has piano leading a madcap burlesque.
Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (1928-29) is an airier, more virtuosic entertainment. Osborne’s percussive, tripping piano comes into comic interplay with oboe, empty-headed flute and lugubrious violin, all tending towards sounds of the greenwood that fade away in the piano.
The Andante gives evidence of Osborne’s astonishing facility to simulate shades of laughter. This movement is sardonic and sentimental, vinegar and oil, mixing march with burlesque and managing to be beautiful.
Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1958–59) is Stravinsky working in 12-tone serial mode. The musical lines are dissonant, fragmented, desolate. The second movement speaks a language that is eerie and sentimental, as if it were asking the metaphysical question “Why me?”
Concerto in D for String Orchestra (1946) also alternates marchy percussive and sweetly imploring sentiment in solo violin and ensemble that sometimes sounds like a slightly dissonant waltz, soft, plaintive, but with the energy of pumping like a carousel, and sometimes develops a stacatto razz, a fibrillation that portends disaster. Various rhythmic and textural strategies come along to try and incorporate this tremor, but without success. The piece ends by coming to terms with it. This is a profound work, perfectly executed.
The album cover, a 1922 work by Paul Klee entitled Senecio (subtitled “Head of a Man Going Senile”) is a manifestation of the the same balance of complexity and economy, simplicity and ambiguity, emotion and wit, humour and tragedy, that we hear in the music of Stravinsky offered on this impeccable recording.