STRAVINSKY: Suite after Pergolesi. Divertimento. Duo concertante. Mavra --Chanson russe. Petrushka -- Danse russe.
Ray Chen (violin), Timothy Young (piano).
Melba MR30128 TT: 63:16.

Incompatible compatibility. Igor Stravinsky once remarked that he thought the sounds of the violin and the piano "incompatible." On the other hand, he wrote all the works here. What changed his mind? Part of it was his meeting the Polish-American violinist Samuel Dushkin, who advised him on his violin concerto. Dushkin must have been a charmer, because he and the notoriously difficult Stravinsky got along like a house afire. The second big incentive was money, which Stravinsky, with a taste for high life and supporting two households (his wife and his mistress) and most of his relatives, always needed. He decided to tour with Dushkin and began to compose his Duo concertante, one of his finest works. The reservations he felt about the instrumental combination have flown over my head. The piece sounds pretty wonderful to me.

However, it didn't fill a recital, and thus the composer began to arrange other pieces. From the short opera Mavra came "The Maiden's Song," from Petrushka, the Danse russe, which Stravinsky had already arranged for solo piano in his masterpiece 3 Mouvements de Pétrouchka, the Divertimento from Le baiser de la fée, and the Suite italienne from Pulcinella, all from the early Thirties. Incidentally, this last differs from the Suite after Pergolesi from 1925, recorded here and written for another player. The earlier score has more virtuosic writing. The Duo concertante counts as the knottiest score -- to me, one of Stravinsky's very best. "Knotty," of course, is a relative term. If you can handle the Concerto for 2 Solo Pianos, you can take this in stride. Everything else sports some of the spiffiest tunes you'll ever hear in settings that both keep their integrity and also set them off in new ways. I think the composer deliberately wanted to build a crowd-pleasing program for himself and Dushkin. My difficulty as a reviewer of Stravinsky lies in the fact that, outside of juvenilia, I can't think of a truly lame work. Everything engages me. To me, Stravinsky's second drawer outshines other composers' top. At the very least, it sounds so good, as well as ever-new.

Throughout my listening, I kept thinking of Itzhak Perlman, who has impeccable Stravinsky credentials. Indeed, he was probably the composer's favorite violinist in his own music. He said of Perlman, after conducting him in a performance of the violin concerto, that he'd have been happy if Perlman appeared in every concert he conducted thereafter. With pianist Bruno Canino, Perlman recorded a superb Stravinsky program about 40 years ago for EMI containing at least the Duo concertante, Divertimento, and the Suite italienne (don't remember the rest, if any). The LP transfer to CD has disappeared from the catalogue, but I've seen it on Amazon.

On the other hand, if you've got the Chen, you don't really need the Perlman. In fact -- though I may speak heresy -- I think Ray Chen plays better than Perlman here at a purely technical level. Indeed, I have never heard double-stopping this good. It sounds like two separate instruments, as does the violin's two-part counterpoint. Chen also shapes a subtle, pliable musical line. Perlman is more straight-ahead and chordal. Perlman gives you strength, while Chen gives you shades. Chen's tempi occasionally move too slowly for me, but the playing itself overcomes my discomfort. Whatever he does, it works. Timothy Young provides sensitive accompaniment, although at times he seems miked too closely. Other than the rare balance problems, the sound is pretty good.

S.G.S. (August 2011)