Stravinsky: Symphonies (CD review)

Sir Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Decca 289 458 898-2.

Although his ballets overshadow his other orchestral work, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) wrote several short symphonies in his lifetime. This disc presents three of them in recordings that were among the last made by Sir Georg Solti and his beloved Chicago Symphony Orchestra before his death in 1997. They show Solti in a more subdued, almost meditative mood, than we usually think of the fiery conductor, although he still whips up a driving rhythm when necessary.

The first work in the program is the Symphony in Three Movements, written on commission in 1945 for the New York Philharmonic. It is the most obviously balletic in style, the first and final movements, especially, reminding the listener of parts of The Rite of Spring. The middle movement, however, is most serene, originally composed as film music for the appearance of the Virgin in The Song of Bernadette. Solti and his players handle the work in a most nuanced and persuasive manner.

Sir Georg Solti
Next comes the Symphony in C, in four movements the longest piece on the program and written in 1940 for the Chicago Symphony. It is also the oddest piece in the group, not quite holding together as we might expect of a conventional symphonic work. Its parts seem more erratic in nature than in the other pieces, more mercurial, even though Solti attempts to mitigate their differences as much as possible.

The disc concludes with the sweetest composition of all, the earliest, and maybe the most familiar: the Symphony of Psalms, written in 1930 for the Boston Symphony. It is a setting for three Psalms, Nos. 39, 40, and 150, sung by the Chicago Symphony Chorus and the Glen Ellyn Children's Chorus. Behind their voices, the orchestra sounds like one large organ playing in solemn accompaniment. It's quite lovely.

Decca's sound, made in Orchestra Hall, Chicago, is notable for its absence of any distinguishing characteristics. This can either be good or bad, depending on your point of view. It's good in that there is nothing about the sonics to distract from the music. It's bad if you're looking for an audiophile experience with lots of depth, impact, transparency, roars, and whistles. Not that it doesn't provide its fair share of thrills, particularly in the occasional bass note, but it is rather dry, medium-range sound, not likely to offend or excite.

In all, this disc struck me as sensible and straightforward, but not remarkably stimulating. It is a more-measured Stravinsky, and a more-measured Solti, than some of us have come to expect.


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

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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