12 August 2017

Early and Uncharacteristic

I just find it amusing that you came from somewhere.
Marcella in Grosse Pointe Blank

Thursday and Friday, I listened to a string quartet written in 1905 by Anton Webern (two different recordings, in fact:  the La Salle Quartet, and the Quatuor Diotima) and—at long last, we might say—the Symphony in Eb, Op.1 by Stravinsky.  The obligatory half-joke:  the quartet is the longest piece I’ve ever heard by Webern, at 12 minutes (even the Passacaglia runs under 11).  In large part (not that this should be in the least surprising) it is rapturously Wagnerian in tone, even while exposing the young composer’s predilection for short, tight motifs.  But then, that is the interest of these early works is it not?  The mix of elements proper to the composer himself, which will wax stronger as his craft matures, and the reflection of the musical environment in which he is schooled.

The Stravinsky Opus 1 is a piece in which I had never found myself interested before.  The theme here, perhaps, is that these early pieces are of necessity curiosities, but not therefore mere curiosities.  From the time of my earliest fascination with Stravinsky—a musical fascination which has endured alway—my ears have been practically insatiable for items of his catalogue unknown to me, how obscure soever, provided the piece was after a certain point.  Still, the early Symphony is included in the Big Stravinsky Box, so it has always been available, and there is no especial reason to shun it.

Call it yet another demonstration of the difference between thinking (let alone reading) about something, and experiencing it.  In a world where orchestras occasionally program the first three Tchaikovsky symphonies, “even though” they’re “not as good” as the Fourth through Sixth (not that there’s anything wrong with that) I ask myself whether there is any reason for the orchestras not to (infrequently) program the Stravinsky Op.1, which is arguably at least as good as the early Tchaikovsky symphonies.

It was really a refreshing surprise to hear the start of the Allegro moderato, and feel that it was no great distance from a piece which Sibelius might have written about the same era.  To be sure, there are many passages of the Symphony whose character is in line with the Rimsky-Korsakovian/proto-Stravinsky style which reaches full assurance in L’oiseau de feu.  I found the Largo especially gratifying, as (to echo the remark made of the Brahms First) a kind of “Tchaikovsky Seventh.”

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