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Album review

Stravinsky: Complete Music for Piano and Orchestra

Stravinsky: Complete Music for Piano and Orchestra

Steven Osborne, piano. BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov, conductor. (Hyperion)

Stravinsky’s piano music is a well-kept secret. Despite a sizable and distinctive output, only the Three Movements from “Petrushka” for solo piano — the composer’s own transcription of his ballet — is frequently performed. Probably rarest of all is the cycle of works for piano and orchestra. As Hyperion’s superb recent album demonstrates, this is a shame: These are small but indelible artifacts of Stravinsky’s genius that deserve a place in the modern concert hall.

Both the Concerto for piano and winds (1923-24) and Capriccio (1928-29) date from the composer’s neoclassical period. Of the two, the Concerto offers the more striking, emotionally engaging music. Brassy fanfare alternates with motoric busyness at the keyboard; every so often, there are episodes of real tragic or lyric intensity. (For tragedy, try the last minute of the first movement; for lyricism, the reverent C major chords that open the second movement, marked Larghissimo.) By comparison, Capriccio sounds more lightweight, a well-crafted virtuoso entertainment (the piano’s dizzying repeated notes in the last movement parody Lisztian acrobatics). The much later 12-tone Movements, from 1959, is a less immediately accessible work, but its serialism is enlivened by playful Stravinskian quirks.

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None of these works offers the pianist a virtuoso vehicle in the manner of the Bartok or Prokofiev concertos. Instead, the piano is first among equals, and what makes this Hyperion set so compelling is its fusion of highly finished keyboard work and world-class orchestral playing. Steven Osborne’s intelligent, well-adjusted pianism can leave me cold in the Romantic repertoire, but here the pianist’s unflappable poise and technical adroitness make him an ideal exponent for Stravinsky’s impersonal idiom. Better still is the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the dynamic baton of Ilan Volkov. There’s not a weak desk in the band, and their collective grasp of Stravinsky’s neoclassical style, by turns acid-tongued and lyrical, makes this album essential listening for any Stravinsky lover. You can even enjoy the strings taking a “solo” turn in a tensile, electric account of the 1946 Concerto in D for string orchestra that rounds out this welcome, enterprising disc.

Seth Herbst can be reached at sherbst@fas.harvard.edu
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