A little over a week ago, the Steinway & Sons recording label released an album of solo performances of the music of Igor Stravinsky by pianist Jenny Lin. Lasting a little over an hour, this CD presents an informative cross-section of pieces Stravinsky composed for solo piano, along with two arrangements by his son Soulima and a rarely recorded arrangement of three movements from the score for “The Firebird” prepared by the Italian pianist Guido Agosti. This album is a valuable reminder that Stravinsky himself was a serious pianist whose contributions to the repertoire consisted far more of his arrangement of three excerpts from his score for the “Petrushka” ballet, which seems to have become an irresistible magnet for just about every young pianist seeking to win a competition award.
Most importantly, Lin should be credited for including the Opus 7 (back when Stravinsky was assigning those numbers) set of four études, composed before Stravinsky first caught the attention of Sergei Diaghilev. These études were written between June and July of 1908 in the keys of C minor, D major, E minor, and F-sharp major. This may have been a prankish gesture on Stravinsky’s part, departing from the familiar circle-of-fifths arrangement to walk through the three whole steps that define the harmonically ambiguous tritone. They also provide an early example of Stravinsky’s interest in complex rhythms. The final étude is dedicated to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who had been Stravinsky’s teacher since 1905 and had died in June of 1908.
I found it interesting that the two arrangements by Soulima are listed as having come from the second suite for chamber orchestra. Composed in 1925, this piece was, itself, an arrangement of the first four of five “easy pieces” for four hand that Stravinsky had composed in 1917. (Strictly speaking, those pieces were only “easy” for two of the hands, intended for those of Diaghilev, who wanted to say that he had played Stravinsky’s music. The other two hands were taken by Stravinsky and are a bit more demanding!) The implication seems to be that Soulima worked from the orchestral version, rather than the four-hand source, which seems a bit peculiar, particularly given the structure of the original.
Regardless of how the arrangements were made, the music itself is decidedly witty. Lin definitely caught that sense of wit, as she did in the “Tango” (which is much more Stravinsky than tango) and the composer’s two rather eccentric attempts to catch the spirit of ragtime. On the more serious side she has found approaches to both the 1924 sonata and the 1925 A major serenade that find opportunities for expressiveness, even if Stravinsky’s own approach to these pieces tended to be on the sterile side. (Stravinsky himself recorded the serenade, as well as “Piano-Rag-Music,” in Paris in July of 1934.)
Most interesting, however, is that we, as listeners, are now looking back, so to speak, on Stravinsky over a span of about a century. His is no longer the prevailing icon of modernism and has become, instead, an essential element of the traditions that shape our listening practices. From that point of view, Lin has provided a valuable profile of this composer’s work for solo piano, neither dismissing nor apotheosizing him but simply providing a set of highly engaging listening experiences.