Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (CD review)

Also, Petrouchka. Jon Kimura Parker, solo piano. Jon Kimura Parker FP 0907.

Over the years there have been a number of piano transcriptions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, including several that Stravinsky himself wrote for two hands and four. The former the composer used to preview the work for producers and conductors and the latter he used for rehearsals. So, the new transcription for solo piano we get here from noted Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker is nothing innovative. It’s just something better, being more complex, more detailed, more demanding than any piano transcription we’ve yet heard of the Rite, and probably better played in this world-premiere recording.

Explaining his reasons for the new piano arrangements of old orchestral scores we hear on the present disc, Mr. Parker says in a liner note, “When I discovered Stravinsky’s piano duet version, my obsession with playing this music at the piano began in earnest. I noticed that Stravinsky, having arranged the duet primarily to facilitate ballet rehearsal, was less fastidious with details than I had expected. I became engrossed in adding instrumental lines that had been left out. From there, it was a natural evolution to try to manage it all myself. The Rite of Spring has been transcribed for solo piano before, in versions so bare as to be unsatisfying, or so inclusive as to be unplayable. However, it is well known that Stravinsky often composed at the piano, and many sections in The Rite bear this out. Petrouchka (1911) presented a different challenge, in that Stravinsky had already created a virtuoso solo piano suite from selected moments of the ballet. Upon reflection I chose to honor the tragic conclusion of the story by transcribing the ballet in its original and complete form.”

Listening to any transcription of a familiar work may take a little getting used to, and these adaptions of Stravinsky for the keyboard may be an acquired taste. Personally, I miss the vibrant percussion of a full orchestra. However, there is no denying that in Mr. Parker’s hands, The Rite, especially, reveals new depths of clarity and detail without losing much of its rhythmic pulse. This is no doubt a tribute not only to Parker’s fine piano arrangement but to his dynamic piano playing.

Russian-born American composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) wrote The Rite of Spring for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, where the music scandalized the country. To be fair, it had probably as much to do with Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography as with the music. Anyway, Mr. Parker’s piano score brings out all the primitive strains in the piece as well as its quiet lyricism.

Parker manages to capture all of Stravinsky’s rowdy, sensual, rhythmic vitality in his piano rendition.  Going in, I had some minor reservations about whether or not he really could pull it off. But the man is amazing. His virtuosity is dazzling and his expressive technique remarkable. You won’t be more than five minutes into the album before you forget there’s no orchestra involved. It’s almost uncanny how Parker is able to recreate the orchestral textures and harmonic nuances of the music. If you are fond of The Rite but have grown tired of all the new recordings of it sounding alike, you owe it to yourself to try this one; it’s like nothing you’ve probably heard before.

Stravinsky composed his ballet Petrouchka in 1910–11 and revised it in 1947. It tells the story of a traditional Russian puppet, Petrouchka, made of straw and sawdust, who comes to life and develops a life of his own, complete with emotions. The composer wrote it just a year after The Firebird and two years before The Rite, so he was flying high.

Petrouchka benefits a little less from Parker’s new transcription, probably because the music itself, while exceptionally melodious, is less innovative than The Rite and because the composer himself wrote a really good piano suite of the music with which many people are already familiar. Nevertheless, Parker’s complete piano rendering contains a good deal of color and excitement, and with the performer’s brilliant finger work the tale comes to life with passion and pathos.

Stravinsky wrote some spectacular ballet music, and Jon Kimura Parker’s piano transcriptions and his playing of them do both scores justice.

Mr. Parker recorded The Rite and Petrouchka for his own recording label in 2009 and 2012 at Stude Concert Hall, The Shephard School of Music, Rice University, Houston, Texas. The piano sound is rich, warm, mellifluous, and resonant. Its mellow bloom accompanies a strong impact from the keys, well caught by the audio engineer. Highs ring out vividly, and low notes make their presence known.  It’s the kind of big, brawny, yet intimate piano sound that fits the music perfectly. It lights up the room.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa