Amidst the interminable tundra of centennial Shostakovich the very thought of an ‘Igor Fest’ is refreshing. And Birmingham’s four-year plan to play every note by the 20th century’s representative composer got off to a marvellous start last month with the CBSO under Sakari Oramo.
A major positive about Stravinsky is just what his detractors used to pounce upon as a defect: he’s always doing something different. Even through the 30 years of common-practice ‘neoclassicism’ from the early 1920s culminating in the late 1950s with The Rake’s Progress, the variety is astonishing, embracing the wit and cheek of the Octet, the graceful suavity of Apollo and the sober seriousness of Orpheus; the twin Attic peaks of Oedipus Rex (implacable, turned to stone) and Persephone (Rameau plus Gounod, lapp’d in rejuvenescent lullabies); the chaste ‘Greek Urn’ of the violin-and-piano Duo Concertante and the crashing grandeur of the Concerto for Two Pianos; the neo-romantic Fairy’s Kiss (loving hommage to Tchaikovsky’s life and music) and the neo-Byzantine splendour of the Symphony of Psalms; the cool constructivism of the Symphony in C and the burning drive of the Symphony in Three Movements. Just naming these (by no means all) is to realise the variety within a generalised similarity of aim and idiom, let alone the very different styles that preceded and followed.
Towards the middle comes the Violin Concerto of 1931, the midpoint of this outstanding Birmingham concert. Its ingredients are some of neoclassicism’s usual suspects. In the first movement a lively DIY baroque twiddle (sort of Vivaldi/ Telemann) plus plenty of pseudo-Bach workout — gutsy, surprising, stimulating, Cubistically cut and reassembled under the soloist’s busy fingers, recalling the cunning of the Devil’s own violin in The Soldier’s Tale. In the two inner movements, both called ‘Aria’, the Bach is cool and lithe, equipoised with elegant nonchalance, airy and capricious in the first, affetuoso and singing in the second. Then the finale returns to vigour, growing ever lighter and gayer in sprays of fireworks, a goodnatured contest between soloist and leader, veering towards jazzy tensions that can touch on the closing convulsions of The Rite of Spring. Daniel Hope was the flawless violinist, alertly abetted at every turn on the highwire by the orchestra. I’ve never heard it so good.
Earlier, a rarity was performed, the Four Studies for Orchestra, which epitomises Stravinsky’s range, and his power to suggest infinite extent within a nutshell. The first three studies began life for string quartet, in 1914, a calculated assault through their uncouth unidiomacy upon the hated Teutonic culture’s most sacred musical medium. A peasant dance, scraps of rough material jarring against the other over a dissonant bagpipe — it might have droned on for a week at a Cossack wedding, but, this being Stravinsky, it is soon brusquely curtailed. A series of gestures — flatfooted, grotesque, impertinent, impotent — inspired by a clown seen in a pre-1914 London music-hall. Then back to Russia for ‘Cantique’, a timeless evocation of religious chanting, statements and responses, layered in tessitura and texture, searing yet soothing in dense harmony, repetitive and hypnotic. Timeless indeed, but all over in a few minutes.
This third study benefits more than the others from transposition to large orchestra. And the fourth is positively a rescue-job since its original — a wicked compendium of every ‘Spanish’ cliché from Glinka to Falla via Carmen, España, Debussy, Ravel, intercut and montaged like contemporary (1917) Braque and Picasso — was written for player-piano, enabling crazy scales and complicated intercrossings impossible to a human being; but it comes into vivid life on the orchestra.
And so to Le rossignol, the mini-opera from a previous aesthetic, after Hans Andersen’s famous tale of the Emperor and the Nightingale. Its first act dates from St Petersburg days before Firebird precipitated its young composer into the limelight: he resumed work with understandable difficulty after Petrushka and The Rite had taken music in two opposite directions, both radical.
Thus Act I is all-Russian magic, Mussorgsky audibly cribbed in the opening bars, Rimsky-Korsakov predominant elsewhere, and everything drenched in the heady opium of Scriabin. Wholly beholden, perfect in facture as in imitation, a period-piece at once droll (when the emperor’s snobbish courtiers take first a passing cow, then some frogs, for the vaunted notes of the nightingale) and luscious; completely lovely and eminently forgettable were it not for the two acts that follow, an orgy of ‘Orientalism’ as the Fourth Study is of ‘Spaniolatry’. It is so lovingly rendered, with such inventive profusion and refinement of detail, as to be perhaps the best-ever tribute from West to East in all this interchange’s long history, certainly in music. The ‘courants d’air’ rendering the eager court thronging to glimpse the divine bird, the marche chinois for the arrival of the emperor and his train, the hollow greeting of emissaries from Japan, the clacking sound of their gift, of a mechanical nightingale, and the ravishing jade-porcelain roulades through which the real bird cajoles the sick emperor back to life, are unsurpassed in creating this European fantasy, possibly open only to a Russian who combines the artificiality and theatricality of his native St Petersburg (city of Fabergé and the Nutcracker-divertissement) with a sideways inheritance of Asiatic opulence.
Utterly Russian, though, the snarling muted brass fanfares heralding Death, her chorus of wailing spooks, and her monotonous chant, till charmed, then banished, by the nightingale’s song. This small part was unforgettably taken in the Birmingham concert: the highpoint in a marvellous performance altogether, stinting nothing (including optional mandolin and guitar) from a very expensive score; its performance in turn the climax of an exceptional whole.
Tricky music, all of it: difficult to play and sing, difficult to conduct; and indeed to listen to, notwithstanding its delights. It doesn’t look after itself, like Shostakovich: it needs tremendous skill and discipline rather than generalised hell-for-leather/ up-and-at-’em. The demands are not emotive; it’ll never wow its audience by vicarious attrition; and though its royalties are accounted in minutes not hours it’ll still be around, pure gold, when the other stuff has long since sunk to the ocean’s long-suffering and capacious bottom.