It is definitely a challenge to record Stravinsky’s Firebird and Trois mouvements de Petrouchka in their versions for solo piano. These scores – and particularly that of the Firebird – were explicitly conceived in a tight relationship with the visual, with the choreographic element of the ballet; moreover, a fundamental component of their novelty and fascination is found in their use of the orchestral colours, whose refinement and detail were learnt by Stravinsky from his mentor Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, one of the greatest orchestrators of all times. To renounce both the visual aspect and part of the timbral differentiation means to present Stravinsky’s musical thought in a more essential and naked version; it implies an enormous effort by the performer in order to clarify and differentiate the musical planes, the lines and the musical directions. Pietro Soraci, the pianist who accepts this challenge in this Da Vinci Classics album, is however perfectly equipped for this adventure, being in the process of recording Bach’s complete keyboard works on the piano, and therefore being very familiar with the complexities of polyphony and timbral variety.
While the two works recorded here seem to constitute an organic corpus – and indeed they do, as we will see – the origins of their piano versions are different from each other. In the case of the Firebird, what is recorded here is the complete ballet score (i.e., not a suite made of excerpts), and is the version Stravinsky created before the orchestration; it can be considered as a fresco’s sinopite, the drawing underlying the final colours. In the case of Petrouchka, instead, the Trois mouvements constitute a suite of their own, created by Stravinsky ten years after the ballet, but which, in turn, influenced his last version of the ballet score (1946). This different genesis is therefore mirrored by the formal and the pianistic features of the two pieces: the Trois mouvements are more compactly and tightly constructed on the structural plane, and, as we will see, were conceived with explicitly pianistic aims in mind, while the Firebird score is more strictly bound to the choreography and its pianistic writing is not expressly conceived for the concert hall.
Both works owe their existence to the cooperation between a young Igor Stravinsky and the Russian impresario Sergey Diaghilev, who was organizing operas and ballets in Paris, but who, due to financial shortages, in 1910 decided to favour the less expensive genre of the ballet rather than operas.
Paris and France were taken by storm by Russian folklore at that time; the colours, magic, stories and decorations of the Russian tradition were very consonant with the symbolist and art déco interests of the era. Being a shrewd impresario, Diaghilev was all too glad to profit from this passion; however, he was also an artist who had theorized an artistic renewal in his home country.
He had written on the journal Mir Iskusstva, and the group in which he belonged offered a novel perspective on aesthetics: a perspective of enchantment, whereby the strict adherence to a realist “truth” could be renounced in favour of “beauty”, intended also as the mythical realm of fantasy and perfection. Diaghilev’s ideas for the Firebird should therefore have been the artistic embodiment of this blending of fairytales, of various art genres, and of ancient traditions.
It was crucial, therefore, that the musical aspect could both mirror the overall aesthetic ideals of the movement, and closely adhere to the needs of the art of dancing. It turned out that finding the musician who could do this was not an easy task. According to some narratives (but there is a certain amount of musicological mythology involved), Diaghilev’s first choice was Alexander Tcherepnin; his second attempt involved Anatoly Lyadov, but this too was unsuccessful. He possibly asked also Alexander Glazunov; certainly, however, Stravinsky was not the first musician who came to Diaghilev’s mind. Diaghilev had known Stravinsky and his music in January 1909, when the impresario had listened to the young composer’s Feu d’artifice, a Fantasy for orchestra, whose creative originality had deeply impressed him. He had therefore requested Stravinsky to orchestrate some pieces by Chopin for Les Sylphides, a ballet he had crafted to pre-existing music. Possibly, Diaghilev had briefly mentioned to Stravinsky the possibility of cooperating for Firebird even before deciding to ask him formally; the impresario was therefore surprised when he discovered that the young composer had already written some music for the ballet when the official request arrived. As told by Stravinsky in his memories, he did not feel particularly drawn to the subject of Firebird, because he still doubted his capability to create the kind of descriptive music necessary for a ballet. He also felt slightly overwhelmed by the artistic authoritativeness of the colleagues with whom he should have cooperated, who were all his seniors. Diaghilev, however, was used to manage the delicate balances of the musical management, and he effectively supported and encouraged the young musician when they met together with choreographer Fokine and the star-dancer Nijinsky. Stravinsky was also flattered and excited by the prospect of having his music performed in the Ville Lumière, though his first opinion of the choreography and staging was a disappointment. In his own words, he felt that the result was something “for Russian export”.
In spite of his misgivings, and also of some embarrassing incidents at the premiere, the Firebird was a tremendous success. Claude Debussy was very captivated by the work, even though his first impression was not entirely flattering – he allegedly said: “One has to start somewhere”. Also Richard Strauss’ opinions were mixed; on the one hand he admired the timbral solutions adopted by Stravinsky, but, on the other, he seem to have dismissed much of the score as being an imitation of his own style.
The plot is derived from an adaptation and reworking of some traditional Russian fairytales. The story narrates the adventures of a prince, Ivan, who captures and then spares a Firebird, interpreted by a female dancer. The magical creature gives him one of her feathers, as a token of gratitude; it will summon the Firebird in case of need. The prince then has to face the black magic of a dark wizard, Kashchey the Deathless, who cannot be killed because his soul has been separated from him and is preserved in a magical egg. Thirteen princesses are held captive by the wizard, who has also the power to turn his victims into stone; however, the enchantment is broken by the Firebird’s own magic, which hypnotises the wizard’s servants and allows Ivan to steal the magical egg. The prisoners are freed, and Ivan can marry the princess whose beauty has won his heart.
After the success of Firebird, Diaghilev could not let the young composer go; however, Stravinsky felt the need of creating something different from ballet music. He therefore turned his attention to what he had conceived as a Konzertstück, a concertante work for piano and orchestra, in which the piano should have impersonated a puppet. In Stravinsky’s words, “In composing the music, I had in my mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts”. Even though Stravinsky had aimed at creating a work for the concert stage, the dramatic and choreographic potential of this idea was not lost on Diaghilev, who urged him to turn his piece into a ballet score. The protagonist was therefore identified with Petrouchka, another figure of the Russian folklore who had, in turn, been reinterpreted by both the composer and the impresario. In fact, Stravinsky’s Petrouchka is a much more sensitive and relatively delicate character than that of the eponymous Russian folktales.
In a fashion similar to that found in many Romantic works, the theme of the Carnival and of the masks becomes a parable for human life. Petrouchka is in love with another puppet, a ballerina, who however favours the Moor, a violent bully who ultimately kills Petrouchka in the midst of the crowd’s indifference – Petrouchka is “just” a puppet, and his life is dismissed as irrelevant. However, at the end of the ballet, Petrouchka’s “soul”, or his spirit, is seen once more, freed from its wooden cage, and taking his moral revenge against his persecutor. The puppet, then, is like the soul’s mask or its prison; the truth of the spiritual being is revealed when he is freed from this enslavement.
The two protagonists of the two ballets are therefore as different from each other as may be: one is a creature made of the most spiritual of all physical elements, i.e. fire, and who can move with the utmost freedom accorded to a living being, i.e. who can fly. The other is made of wood, a seemingly inert material, and its movements are stiff and unnatural. Similarly, the music for the earlier ballet is indebted to the “enchanted” music of the Russian tradition, from Čajkovsky’s ballets to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, while the second is at times ferociously modernist. The piano is therefore required to transform itself into a variety of sounds, and, in Petrouchka, to display both its percussive and its expressive quality. The virtuoso potential of the score was imagined by the composer, who created the Trois mouvements for Artur Rubinstein, with the aim in mind of enticing him into playing his music, through the promise of a dazzlingly virtuoso piece and of an enthralling composition. And this challenge, too, was won, as demonstrated also in this captivating juxtaposition of two masterpieces of the ballet repertoire in their piano versions.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Soraci, Pietro (Pianist) born in Catania, Italy, showed his extraordinary natural talent in playing the piano since he was three years old, gaining the interest of the national press and televisions. He performed first when he was eleven, with the Orchestra of Bellini Opera Theater. He graduated with the highest score, cum laude, and honored with a special award of appreciation. After experiencing different approaches to the piano music and techniques through the contact with some of the major teachers he was awarded of several prizes in national and international piano competitions and in particular he was recognized as the best Italian pianist by the international piano competition “Frederic Chopin” in Varsaw (Polen) in 1985. Currently, he performs all over Europe and Italy by the main Music Institutions and Concert Seasons both as soloist and in ensembles. Moreover he is full Professor for the major degree in piano music by the Conservatorio di Milano “G. Verdi”. Has recently undertaken (by Da Vinci classics) the complete opera recording of Bach keyboard on critical edition with Barenreiter patronage.
Igor Stravinsky: (b Oranienbaum [now Lomonosov], nr St Petersburg, 5/17 June 1882; d New York, 6 April 1971). Russian composer, later of French (1934) and American (1945) nationality. One of the most widely performed and influential composers of the 20th century, he remains also one of its most multi-faceted. A study of his work automatically touches on almost every important tendency in the century’s music, from the neo-nationalism of the early ballets, through the more abrasive, experimental nationalism of the World War I years, the neo-classicism of the period 1920–51 and the studies of old music which underlay the proto-serial works of the 1950s, to the highly personal interpretation of serial method in his final decade. To some extent the mobile geography of his life is reflected in his work, with its complex patterns of influence and allusion. In another sense, however, he never lost contact with his Russian origins and, even after he ceased to compose with recognizably Russian materials or in a perceptibly Slavonic idiom, his music maintained an unbroken continuity of technique and thought.