Igor Stravinsky was, without question, one of the great composers of the 20th century; and fortunately for us, he had dozens of champions in the conducting world, and orchestras that were willing to take on his always-challenging material. Ballet scores like "The Firebird", "Pulcinella", "Petrushka", and "The Rite Of Spring" helped not only define Stravinsky as an individualistic composer, but also helped shape a great deal of 20th century music, up to and including the music in many a Hollywood movie. And yet, there is still a lot of Stravinsky's material to be discovered by the listener. Fortunately for us, Pierre Boulez is one of those tireless Stravinsky experts out there willing to take the plunge into lesser-known Stravinsky territory; and on this 2001 Deutsche Grammophon release (though the recordings themselves were made seven years earlier), he does it with an orchestra he has been associated with since 1965, the Cleveland Orchestra.
The opening work on this recording, "Scherzo Fantastique", predates even the work ("The Firebird") that gave him his first notoriety; it dates from 1907-08. It was this very work, ironically, that led ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev to the young composer, and hence to the four legendary ballets that they collaborated on. It is extremely easy to see why; even at this early stage of his life (he was just 27 at the time), this piece shows Stravinsky's vivid imagination, which was on a par with French contemporaries like Debussy and Ravel.
The second work, translated either as "Star Face" or "King Of The Stars", is a short cantata for male chorus and orchestra sung in Russian and based on a work by the Russian poet Konstantin Balmont. Composed in 1911, but not premiered for another twenty-eight years until 1939, it is a very religious and spiritual work that the composer dedicated to Debussy, who had so admired "Petrushka."
The third piece, "The Song Of The Nightingale", is the composer's foray into that genre virtually invented in the mid-19th century by Franz Liszt and bought to its perfection at the dawn of the 20th by Richard Strauss--that of the symphonic tone poem. It is based on the second and third acts of the composer's opera "The Nightingale", which had premiered in 1914; the tone poem itself was premiered in 1917.
The final piece, "The Soldier's Tale", is undoubtedly one of the more unusual works not only of Stravinsky in general, but 20th century music in particular. Depicting a soldier's misadventures and encounters with the Devil himself, this orchestral suite from 1918 requires a mere seven players (violin; double bass; clarinet; bassoon; cornet; trombone; percussion). It has the typical Stravinsky elements of orchestral coloring and more than a little sardonic wit. Of note is the eighth movement, the "Grand Chorale"; the instrumentation here gave inspiration to the underrated Hollywood film composer Jerry Fielding when he composed the main theme to his superlative Oscar-nominated score for director Sam Peckinpah's 1971 psychological horror film masterpiece STRAW DOGS.
Boulez is no stranger to Stravinsky; and while these four works are not necessarily among the composer's "hits", they are still hugely accessible, especially in Boulez's hands, and with the enthusiastic cooperation of the Cleveland Orchestra and (in "Star Face") the male singers of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus (as supervised by Gareth Morrell). Anyone with a taste for 20th century music in general, and Stravinsky in particular, should get a hold of this collection forthwith.