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Stravinsky Monday at NEC


Stravinsky by Picasso

An all-Stravinsky will invariably attract me; yesterday’s compact one for First Monday in Jordan Hall brought together Conservatory faculty, students, alumni, and friends for a genuine picnic of both familiar and seldom-heard examples. Interlocutor-Programmer Laurence Lesser spoke more briefly than usual, pointing us to extensive online resources which I haven’t consulted.

Three Pieces for string quartet (1914) are real rarities — and rarefied music at that: small gestures, repeated patterns, and dissonant polytonality at the borderline of atonality. Titles were not added to them until Stravinsky arranged them in 1929 for full orchestra under the title of Quatre Études (the fourth study was Madrid of 1917, originally for pianola). The first piece, Danse, features a G major folksong melody with bitter-crunch harmony underneath; Excentrique has snarls and moans, repeated with a Satie-like mechanicity; and Cantique is starkly chordal, very soft and even ecclesiastical, with a suggestion of Dies irae. The players, Tiffany Chang and Momo Wong, violins, Nicholas Cords, viola, and Claire Deokyong Kim, cello, played the three pieces with extreme assertiveness as well as full expression. Stravinsky, in his 1960 memoirs, visiting Debussy in his last illness, wondered why the older composer hadn’t yet heard this music.

“The Octuor began with a dream in which I saw myself in a small room surrounded by a small group of instrumentalists playing some very attractive music… I awoke from this little concert in a state of great delight and anticipation and the next morning began to compose the Octuor…” This much of Stravinsky’s memoir tells you most of what you need to know before hearing the Octet for winds, one of the most elegant and lovable monuments of 20th-century neoclassicism; I have written about it elsewhere (October 22, 2019). One more remark from the composer deserves mention: “What could be more terse than the punctuation of the final chord, in which the first inversion suffices to indicate finis and at the same time gives more flavor than the flat-footed tonic?” He was wrong: the C major triad appears in second inversion, with G in the bass; but it’s certainly terse and full of flavor. The happy players were Cynthia Meyers (flute), Will Amsel (clarinet), Rose Vrbsky amd Jensen Bocco (bassoons), Michael Dobrinski and Kathryn Driscoll (trumpets), and Alexei Doohovskoy and James Markey (trombones).

The fourth work, the Ragtime for eleven instruments (1918), is also seldom heard anywhere, in large part because of rare availability of a cimbalom and someone to play it. At the same time, Stravinsky probably regarded this piece as an impressionistic experiment with gestures and figures imitative of American jazz, a sonic ideal he realized more fully in the Ragtime movement in l’Histoire du soldat, and more improvisationally in Piano-rag-music (1919). The instruments are flute, clarinet, horn, cornet, trombone, percussion, cimbalom, two violins, viola, and contrabass. Helen Wargelin played the horn; Michael Dobrinski played a teeny piston-valve cornet; the two snare drums (one without snares), bass drum, and cymbal were ably handled by Stephanie Nozomi Krichena; Nicholas Tolle played the cimbalom; Lawrence Wolfe played the double bass; the other players you already know about from the first two works mentioned. All of these instrumentalists came together for the short number that preceded the Ragtime: the Vivo (no. 7) movement from the Pulcinella Suite, which everyone knows as the enigmatic comic duo for trombone and solo double bass — arranged for this occasion by Ian Wiese, doctoral candidate composer at NEC studying under John Heiss; Wiese also writes for the Intelligencer. His clever chamber arrangement hews pretty close to Stravinsky’s solo-ripieno original, adding only a few extra timbres, including the nicely ligneous marimba and also the cimbalom which I couldn’t easily hear.

Last and longest on the program was Stravinsky’s own four-hand piano arrangement of The Rite of Spring, which the composer worked on at the same time as he prepared the full orchestral score (There are some significant differences between the two). One assumes that Stravinsky had intended to provide a version that could be used in choreographic rehearsals; but at the same time, it gives an indication of what he felt was important to be heard, especially rhythmically. Just the way the duet score feels on the keyboard gives one a sense of what parts of the score Stravinsky initially felt pianistically (the Augures printaniers section, for instance, or the Danse sacrale) rather than those in which orchestral working-out probably occupied more of his compositional thought (the Jeu du rapt, for instance, or the Cortège du sage). He may not have expected that the four-hand version would one day be actually offered in concerts, but after it Michael Tilson Thomas and Ralph Grierson recorded it ca. 1972, it began to appear in concerts (I myself played secondo in eight of them), usually on two pianos rather than one, which meant that more of the indicated notation (and some not indicated) could be articulated more effectively.

Yesterday two pianos nested onstage: Marc-André Hamelin played primo and Gloria Chien secondo; the placement of lid-up primo behind the coverless secondo turns out to be important for the dynamic balance. The performance was in every way energetic, exciting, rhythmic, closely coordinated, yet it often suffered in sound, not from an excess of massiveness, but from a lack of clarity in an excess of pedaling. This especially became noticable in the final Danse sacrale, in several sections, with different kinds of force and lower-register texture that often require a crisp staccato even when the chords are very heavy. The players especillay blurred the ostinato passage beginning in 5/4 with a mass of drums and tamtam (no. 174). Stravinsky’s duet score should have helped, but it contains almost no instructions at all for pedaling — and that makes you imagine that when the dancers rehearsed in 1913, they wanted to hear the accentuation and polyrhythms very crisply. The original orchestration suggests even more that the Danse sacrale must be staccato and struck as heavily as possible. That is a hard trick to bring off on one piano, let alone two. But I treasured every minute of this immortal iconoclasm.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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  1. Glad you enjoyed it, and very glad you called out my arrangement. I used the cimbalom there more as support for the woodwinds rather than a soloistic instrument that Stravinsky did in the Ragtime that followed. The most pronounced it got was during the tutti C major and Bb major chords; there’s the attack of the cimbalom supporting the flute and clarinet.

    Comment by Ian Wiese — December 8, 2021 at 11:22 am

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