February 23, 2006


Stravinsky: Pulcinella; The Fairy’s Kiss. Diana Montague, mezzo-soprano; Robin Leggate, tenor; Mark Beesley, bass; Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft (Pulcinella). London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft (The Fairy’s Kiss).  Naxos. $8.99.

     Every CD in Naxos’ superb Robert Craft Collection is excellent, but each is excellent in a different way.  Craft is unexcelled at understanding Stravinsky, and Naxos’ latest Craft/Stravinsky CD is above all filled with that understanding.  The programming shows it by pairing two highly contrasting works in which Stravinsky pays homage to and then soars beyond the music of the past.  Both these recordings have been released before by Koch International Classics: Pulcinella was recorded in 1997 and The Fairy’s Kiss in 1995.  But this particular pairing adds depth to performances that are already of the highest quality.

     Pulcinella (1920) is a one-act ballet with seven songs.  It is based on what was thought to be music by Giambattista Pergolesi (1710-1736), but it turns out that many works attributed to Pergolesi were actually by others.  Thus, the ballet contains Stravinsky’s reworking not only of Pergolesi’s music but also of pieces by two Pergolesi contemporaries, Domenico Gallo and Alessandro Parisotti.  The ballet is all about identity confusion, so the musical confusion underlying it makes a strange kind of sense.  Stravinsky deliberately made the work far more complex than its sources through unusual instrumentation: using the trombone, a sacred instrument in the 18th century, in Jazz Age form; introducing flute and string harmonics; creating a double-bass solo with glissando; and much more.  Stravinsky borrowed the songs from various operas, and used them in ways that complicate the action rather than simplify it.  Yet the composer follows the harmonic and melodic structure of 200 years earlier rather closely, giving the ballet simultaneously a 20th-century feeling and a strong identification with the past.  In lesser hands than Craft’s, Pulcinella can come across – especially on a CD, with no action visible – as rather confusing, its music neither here nor there.  Craft understands that this is exactly Stravinsky’s point, and that the apparent musical inconsistencies are directly in tune (so to speak) with Léonide Massine’s you-never-know-who’s-who libretto.  Craft sees the logic underlying the apparently mismatched elements of this ballet and produces a performance that flows forward while holding admirably together.

     The Fairy’s Kiss (also known by its French title, Le baiser de la fée) was written later than Pulcinella, in 1928, and revised in 1950.  It uses music of the more recent past – Tchaikovsky’s – and uses it quite differently.  Stravinsky’s deference to the past in Pulcinella is missing in The Fairy’s Kiss, most of which is really Stravinsky’s own music on Tchaikovskian models.  The Tchaikovsky pieces used by Stravinsky are not taken from the familiar symphonies and ballets, but are short movements from early piano works and songs.  Stravinsky built his own music on Tchaikovsky’s foundation, using it for a balletic story about Tchaikovsky himself: a young man whose muse, the Fairy, is not entirely benevolent.  Scholars can dissect the ballet to see just what Stravinsky did with and to Tchaikovsky’s music – Craft himself explains some of the techniques in his booklet notes for this CD.  But listeners do not need the intellectual underpinnings to enjoy The Fairy’s Kiss and appreciate its style.  Craft conducts it with loving sensitivity tempered by intimate knowledge of Stravinsky’s techniques.  The result, here as in Pulcinella, is as effective as it can possibly be.

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