Thursday, 7 June 2012

Stravinsky and the Muses

Stravinsky's neo-Classical ballet Apollo has a very attractive and individual soundworld - melodies worthy of Tchaikovsky or Delibes dressed in the string sonorities of the orchestras of Haydn and Mozart and spiced with the unique harmonies of Igor Stravinsky. It's one of my favourites Stravinsky works and, if you don't know it, I hope you will give it a try.

The 'Prologue: The Birth of Apollo' is a particularly enjoyable passage. Appropriating the form of a French Overture, right down to the stately dotted rhythms and the lithe Allegro, it begins ever so gracefully - those Baroque-sounding trills! -, gently climbing, falling away deliciously after an exquisite modulation, before presenting its main theme - an enchanting melody that I'm sure Tchaikovsky himself would have been proud to have written. Being Stravinsky, this tune is presented chastely over a semi-detached accompaniment. The Allegro is spry and springs upon us more beautiful tunes amidst athletic figures based on arpeggios and scales. (This seems to have been something of the spirit that Michael Tippett was to try and capture after the end of the war). It climaxes in a wonderful passage of cross-rhythms before the enchanting main theme sings out again. The final chord (as so often with Stravinsky) is magical. 

'Variation of Apollo (Apollo and the Muses)' is pure chamber music - though chamber music to be danced to! It begins with a beautiful Bach-like violin solo before the three Muses join the dances and the movement begins to sing winningly over a pizzicato accompaniment. 

The 'Pas d'action' is another favourite bit of Stravinsky for me, boasting another absolutely gorgeous main theme, again presented over a de-romanticising accompaniment but, countering this, joined by a counter-melody based entirely on triadic arpeggios. Later it sings again, even more warmly accompanied by a Tchaikovsky-style figure on cellos and later still a solo viola takes on the song's burden. So beautiful!

The 'Variation of Calliope (the Alexandrine)' is built on a particular rhythm but is so charming that you may not even notice - especially its Delibes-like second half where a warm cello solo sings amidst graceful balletic gestures.

The 'Variation of Polyhymnia' is lively and utterly endearing, somewhat Mozart-like in its unison gestures yet, again, Delibes-like in the springy writing of the main section.

The 'Variation of Terpsichore' may win over Apollo but I would have chosen one of the other two Muses, as this movement appeals to me least!

The second 'Variation of Apollo' is a captivating movement with rich, succulent 'ripieno' writing contrasting with lovely 'concertino' writing.

The heart truly belongs though to the ravishing 'Pas de deux (Apollo and Terpsichore)' where Stravinsky creates something that manages miraculously to evoke Tchaikovsky and Delibes at their most magical while remaining wholly Stravinskyan. Take its harmonies. The sound - in part because they are - romantic and diatonic but they are also touched throughout by palette-cleansing dissonance - the kind of dissonance that barely registers as being dissonance. I'd say it's the loveliest thing he ever wrote. 

The 'Coda (Apollo and the Muses)' is delightful, bringing in a lighter-hearted element and jazz. It doesn't sound like Poulenc but it's not far from his spirit, exulting in syncopations and hinting at light music as it does whilst sticking with Classical models.

The loveable ballet ends with the 'Apotheosis' of Apollo, a slow movement which brings back the enchanting main theme of the 'Prologue', rocking it gently like a lullaby. The harmonies throughout are wonderful and the ending is as beautiful as can be.

'Apollo' certainly earns his place in the pantheon!

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