Recording of April 2023: Stravinsky: Violin Concerto & Chamber Works

Stravinsky: Violin Concerto & Chamber Works
Isabelle Faust, violin; Les Siècles, François-Xavier Roth, cond.
Harmonia Mundi 902718 (reviewed as 24/96 WAV download). 2023. Jiri Heger, prod.; Aurélien Bourgois & Alix Ewald, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

You might think that by 1931—the year Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) completed his unforgettable Violin Concerto in D Major—orchestral instruments were the same as those used today. Far from it. According to the website of Claire Givens Violins (footnote 1), pure-gut D strings began to disappear after WWI and were wound with aluminum after WWII. Gut A strings ceded to synthetics in 1970, and gut E strings transitioned to steel between 1910 and WWII. With no consistency between modern orchestras, the string sections we hear in live performances and on electrical recordings set down since 1926 are, for the most part, a grab bag. Wind instruments and pianos have changed as well, and halls have increased in size and pitch has risen. Put all that together, and you can well understand why this "period instrument" recording of music Stravinsky completed between 1907 and 1931 is a revelation.

As on other period instrument recordings from Les Siècles, conductor François-Xavier Roth has consciously scrubbed away a century or more of what he considers inauthentic performance practice, with the goal of reproducing what Stravinsky likely expected to hear.

You can find more (self-)consciously virtuosic renditions of the Violin Concerto from other players. Hilary Hahn and Charles Mackerras shave 1:04 off the first movement compared to Faust and Roth, and 46 seconds off their 6:18 finale, but never will you hear such clarity of texture, such variety of color and timbre, and such emphatic rhythmic delineation as here.

Sharp rhythmic attack are central not only to The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913)—Stravinsky's three early ballets for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes—but to successful performances of much of Stravinsky's oeuvre, including works performed here. Roth's instruments may produce lighter sounds than their successors, but their tighter focus and greater timbral variety makes for slam that lasts for days. For rhythmic acuity alone, this recording of the Violin Concerto and the chamber works that preceded it is a stunner.

But there's far more than rhythm at play on this recording. Many of these works can sound motorific at times, but they also wink at you, with frequent flashes of humor. When Stravinsky imprinted the four-movement Violin Concerto's middle two "arias" with his unique baroque-meets-modernism-meets–Russian-folk-music language, he ensured that you would have difficulty getting the beginning of Aria II out of your head. I challenge you to find a bubbly with as jaunty a finish as the sparkly final Capriccio; it sounds especially brilliant under Faust's bow. In the same piece, the short duets between violin and bassoon are a joy, taken at a pace that allows Faust and Roth to savor each note. The conclusion's unexpected gear shift at 5:00 is a special surprise, its race to the finish a delight. If you think hi-rez doesn't make a difference, listen to the extra clarity and timbral uniqueness of 24/96 over "Red Book" resolution.

The remaining six works on the program—the longest, Trois pièces pour quatuor à cordes, from 1914, lasts all of 7:11—help deepen appreciation for Stravinsky's idiosyncratic soundworld. Don't miss the unique timbres of gut strings when the musicians follow Stravinsky's instructions to turn the second violin and the viola upside down when playing pizzicato, and to occasionally produce strangled sounds. Stravinsky loved the music of this quartet so much that he expanded the three pieces into four when he orchestrated the work in 1928.

I confess a special affinity for the captivating lyrical warmth of the "Variation d'Apollon" from Apollon Musagète (Apollon and the Muses), the 1928 ballet for George Balanchine that Stravinsky scored for strings alone; it's one of the most captivating short string pieces I've heard. The rhythms of the short single-movement Concertino, which Stravinsky composed for string quartet in 1920, are so distinct that you can almost visualize dancers before your eyes. Stravinsky reworked it for 12 instruments 32 years later.

The early Pastorale for Solo Violin and Woodwinds looks backward and forward at the same time; its burping woodwinds are reminiscent of little birds hopping along the ground, pecking for food and gravel without a care; it's strangely seductive in a Scheherazade-meets–Russian-peasant kind of way. The brief, sad Double Canon for String Quartet, which terminates without resolution, seems a strange way to end a program so filled with such life-affirming revelations.—Jason Victor Serinus

Footnote 1: See

Long-time listener's picture

Thank you. Lately I've been enjoying the box set of all of Stravinsky's Columbia recordings, with even better sound than the earlier "Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky" set. It contains some amazing things: the works for two pianos, with Gold & Fizdale; the Movements for Piano and Orchestra; and Stravinsky's own recording of his Orpheus ballet with the Chicago Symphony. Often in amazingly good sound. His range as a composer was really something, and while we think of many pieces such as the Rite as "motoric," he had a great melodic gift as well.

Herb Reichert's picture

I woke up and started my day with this Faustian delight

and a nice read


dschian's picture

Will listen to this recording- may be good interpretations.
That being said, regarding the matter of "period renditions" of composers like Debussy or Stravinsky, as Roth has branded himself as undertaking, music critic David Hurwitz over on Youtube effectively demolishes the dogma in the period instrument/performance movement re. the superiority of precisely recreating such recent works on prior/period iterations of instruments. Essentially, as he points out, conductors such as Monteux and others, who either personally knew Debussy, Stravinsky and their ilk, knew the musicians and conductors familiar with them, or were born early enough to have grown up with contemporary performances of works by the composers, have almost universally chosen to adopt modern instrumentation, suggesting that the composers in question were themselves not averse to the evolution of instrumentation, given the many improvements in the nature of such later instrumentation. Thus Hurwitz characterizes the obsession with period instrumentation in certain classical music quarters as typically being misguided, rigid, and fusty in nature. There's more to his thesis than what I've suggested here- his arguments against dogmatic belief in the so-called superiority of period instrumentation are quite well-thought-out, and so his videos on these topics are worth watching.
While there's not necessarily anything terrible about 'period recordings' of such recent composers, those regarding such recordings as some pinnacle of relevant, lost superiority are rather affected in their outlook.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Whew. I"m sure glad I don't regard period recordings "as some pinnacle of relevant, lost superiority." In fact, given the abundance of period instrument recordings and performances, I'm not sure what "lost" refers to.

When all is said and done (as if all is ever said and done), I prefer to listen, observe, and report how I feel about recordings and performances. Then I invite people to listen for themselves.

As for demolishing dogma, there's no stopping those who feel the need to enter the demolition derby. As it always has been, so shall it be.


pbarach's picture

And others don't agree with him. This specific recording of the Violin Concerto gains from the less blended sound of the woodwinds compared to other good recordings. And what Roth and his group are doing here and elsewhere is a whole different ballgame from Norrington conducting Mahler symphonies without any vibrato when the recorded history of music shows that's ridiculous (on this point I agree with Hurwitz).

Long-time listener's picture

Regardless of what Hurwitz or anyone else says, a lot of period instrument performances sound REALLY good to me. In particular, for any music on up to and including the Baroque, I strongly prefer them. I find that the tonalities of period instruments just seem more natural and enjoyable for music of those periods. I don't have set preferences for later periods, but I've certainly heard Beethoven and other composers sound good that way too. So I'm with JVS on this one.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Forget about all the mental arguments. Instead, listen.

I could say the same thing about equipment we review.

Hmmm. Maybe that's two thoughts. Guess I haven't stopped thinking...