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Interpreting Stravinsky (continued)

Igor Stravinsky, in his polemics, preached “against interpretation.” He insisted that his music be performed as written, and as he himself had performed and recorded it. He idealized mechanical instruments. But in 1978 — seven years after his father’s death — Soulima Stravinsky created an edition of the Stravinsky Piano Sonata (1935) adding pedallings, dynamics, and expression marks. At the recent Stravinsky Project presented by Post-Classical Ensemble and Strathmore, George Vatchnadze took Soulima’s edition and ran with it. The result was a singular reading of the Sonata, weightier and more espressivo than either Stravinsky — Igor or Soulima (who left a 1950 recording) — might have attempted. It treated the work’s neo-classicism — its orderly retrospective gestures — as an ingredient dialectically aroused amidst ingredients more muscular and eruptive. A memorable statement.
Alexander Toradze, who years ago taught Vatchnadze, made an even more radical — more muscular and eruptive — statement in the Stravinsky Concerto for Piano and Winds, a work he has recorded with Valery Gergiev. The processional opening, beautifully shaped by Angel Gil-Ordonez, instantly attained a liturgical gravitas. The slow movement, taken more slowly than had previously seemed possible, maximized the ritualistic potential of massed winds.
Igor and Soulima left a 1930s two-piano recording of Mozart’s C minor Fugue, auditioned and discussed during the Stravinsky Project. This antiseptic reading by no means cancels interpretation. Rather, it insolently downplays the music’s heroic expressive content. It, too, is memorable in its way.
What to make of it all? In a program note, Toradze suggested that Stravinsky’s strictures against interpretation were “something he had to do because traditional piano pedagogy teaches older styles. The prevailing traditions at the time were extremely Romantic — rubato, singing pinkies and all of that. Stravinsky wanted more contrast, much stricter discipline, rhythmic rigor. There was no piano school that teaches you that, really. So the restrictions he placed on performers were once appropriate.”
Toradze places no restrictions on interpretive liberties. In the momentary austerities of Stravinsky’s bubbly Capriccio for piano and orchestra (1926-29) he infers the impact of Serge Diaghilev’s death — which occurred when the Capriccio was in its final stages of creation. At the Stravinsky Project, the film-maker Tony Palmer (whose well-known Stravinsky documentary – itself a distinguished feat of interpretation — was screened and pondered) proposed that the chronological record doesn’t really support Toradze’s extrapolation. But Toradze doesn’t care — for him, the Diaghilev connection is a tool that enables him to enter more deeply in a musical world he bravely co-creates with the composer. This is a notion of the performer’s role that would have been lost on Stravinsky.
At the furthest remove from Stravinsky’s practice is Genadi Zagor, who closed the three-day festival with a prodigious 20-minute Stravinsky improvisation that drove the audience to its feet. The materials Zagor mainly enlisted were from The Firebird (1910). Several musicians of my acquaintance will confess, privately, that this is their favorite Stravinsky score, preceding the complex stylistic odyssey he undertook in exile from his beloved St. Petersburg.
Earlier in the same concert, Zagor and Vatchadze had offered a surging performance of the Concerto for Two Solo Pianos (1935) that Igor composed for himself and his son to play in cities where no orchestra was available. This arresting four-movement score, rarely heard today, abounds in ingenious textural effects. It incorporates an aromatic nocturne and a strenuous four-voice fugue. If it succeeds incompletely, this is partly because of cerebral aspirations exceeding musical possibilities. I would call the Concerto for Two Solo Pianos a little smug.
The Stravinsky odyssey, once a signature twentieth century achievement, has in the twenty-first century become an elusive object of singular fascination. (For more on Stravinsky, see my postings of March 23 and May 3, 9, and 26, 2010. For a Russian TV report on the Stravinsky Project, including clips of Toradze in concert, click here.)

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