Stravinsky: Diversions

Dave Billinge
Music Web International (UK)

Melba established themselves as extremely daring when they issued the entire Adelaide production of Wagner's Ring on SACD. This demonstrated the very highest technical and presentational standards. This issue is not an SACD...but it is beautifully produced. The notes are detailed, literate and presented in a readable point-size. The background to this unusual set of Stravinsky chamber works is thoroughly explored, the soloists' CVs are included and it is all given in English, French and German...the sound overall has an ease and naturalness that others could learn from. I suspect that the engineers did not use close miking on the piano and that is the reason it sounds different from the norm. If a piano is miked from almost inside the lid it will all be clear but utterly unreal. This CD sounds as if it is in an acoustic and is worth turning up louder than usual to achieve the best results. The Iwaki Auditorium in Melbourne is a small, well equipped modern hall used by the Melbourne orchestra as a rehearsal venue and as an acoustic for small-scale concerts.
The music is the fruit of a lengthy collaboration between Stravinsky and the Polish-American violinist Samuel Dushkin. The aim was the encourage Stravinsky to write a violin concerto. The two musicians hit it off and so the composer embarked on a series of compositions designed for himself and Dushkin to play in recital and record together. Only one of these pieces was actually written for violin and piano, the Duo Concertante. It is a serious and introverted piece sometimes reminiscent of Apollo. Stravinsky allows his rhythmic wit out to play, especially in the Gigue. All the remaining pieces are arrangements from other works but this is never simply a matter of transcription. Stravinsky always went back to his original ideas and re-composed them for the new instrumental combination. This not only allowed the composer a chance to explore more of the potential in the ideas. It also meant that each work could be viewed as new, and publishable as such, all fitting with his lifelong preoccupation with getting properly paid for his efforts. The Pergolesi Suite draws upon Pulcinella which was itself published as a suite for orchestra as well as in two versions for violin and piano. Oddly, given that this recording explicitly refers to Stravinsky's partnership with Dushkin, the piece played by Chen and Young was written for Paul Kochanski and is more virtuosic than the well known Suite Italienne actually transcribed and recomposed for Dushkin. The two pieces are obviously similar but not the same. Likewise the Divertimento derives from the 45 minute long ballet The Fairy's Kiss, itself based on themes by Tchaikovsky. The Divertimento was composed first for orchestra and then for violin and piano. It includes about half the original score in its four movements.
Chen has a distinct tendency to swoop between notes and I did wonder if some of his tempi were a bit too slow. However, the ensemble between violin and piano is so good and Chen's intonation so utterly reliable that I have to assume the use of portamento not an affectation but interpretative. I have not heard Stravinsky's and Dushkin's own recordings, except for the Marche Chinoise available on You Tube and not included here, but it may be Chen is intending to bring the flavour of 1930s playing style as befits the works. Ray Chen is a superb musician capable of great virtuosity as well as sensitivity. His partnership with Timothy Young provides a wonderful display of unanimity through complex rhythms and Stravinskian jokes. It deserves a wide audience.
Dave Billinge