Review: Stravinsky – Symphonies – Sir Andrew Davis (2022)

Many readers will consider Stravinsky’s own recordings definitive. But the recording quality of those albums is variable, and none compete with the audiophile quality of this new release. The Chandos engineers ensure we hear all of the brilliance and refinement of Stravinsky’s orchestration in Super-Audio sound that is resonant, crystal clear, and had an extended dynamic range. The overall excellence and engagement suggest this was a cherished project for Davis.

Others will hold Robert Craft recordings in similar esteem, so I must acknowledge that I find Craft’s recordings, at least of these Stravinsky symphonies, overly cold and clinical. And the Philharmonia Orchestra’s playing in the Symphony in C is surprisingly imprecise.

The CD opens with “Greeting Prelude,” written to celebrate the 80th birthday of Pierre Monteux. It is a mildly atonal, tongue in cheek arrangement of ‘Happy birthday,” played by Davis and the BBC Philharmonic with a sardonic wit and burnished colors – a fabulous opener. 

Stravinsky began his Symphony in C in Paris in the late 1930s but finished it in America in 1940. The work is dedicated to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. In the opening movement Davis inspires exactly the right spirit: spiky and precise, energetic and playful. The BBC Philharmonic offer a leonine athleticism, eschewing the voluptuous weight of sound often used in their many recordings of Romantic-era repertoire. Rattle’s Berlin recording (Warner Classics) is unsuccessful in large part because the orchestra retains its weighty splendor, which in turn results in slower than normal tempos. Davis takes inner movements a bit slower than Tilson Thomas (Sony Classical), but the orchestration sparkles, and one is constantly made aware of the many unique color combinations. Despite being faster, the London Symphony Orchestra under Tilson Thomas sounds less engaged, and overly earnest. In the final movement Davis is again a bit slower than the composer or Tilson Thomas, but the playing has an inner fire and enthusiasm that draws the listener in.

The Divertimento is extracted from Stravinsky’s ballet The Fairy’s Kiss. Intended as an homage to Tchaikovsky, the four movements are an intoxicating mix of songs and piano works by Tchaikovsky, arranged and orchestrated with a pointillistic beauty. Yet this music plays to Davis’ strength in Romantic music – phrases are shaped with gentle ardor, and each movement has a beguiling balletic grace. The BBC Philharmonic is uniformly impressive, the playing detailed and transparent, strings agile and lean. The horns are particularly powerful and fulsome in the ‘Danses Suisses’ (track 7).

Stravinsky’s “Symphony in Three Movements” was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic who premiered the work in 1946. The composer, who often argued against music having any extra musical association, did admit this music was a direct response to the second World War. The first movement is the composer’s reaction to a documentary he saw that showed Japan’s scorched earth tactics in China, while the final movement is meant to capture the marching of Nazi soldiers. This music packs a darker emotional punch, its writing angrier and more acerbic.

Boulez’s performance of this work with the Berlin Philharmonic is my go-to recording – it has a compelling balance of clarity and weight, sharpness, and purity that I have never heard equaled. Davis and the BBC do not equal that performance, but they are close. The BBC Philharmonic are extremely precise, and the balances are masterfully handled, but the sound is rounder, sweetening the acidic nature of Stravinsky’s writing. One really hears the ugliness of war in Berlin. I also like that Berlin’s piano is more forwardly balanced in the sound picture. The slow movement is beautiful in both performances, but here I find the Davis reading more emotionally engaging. Davis and the BBC are energized and powerful in the final movement, but Boulez’s even faster tempo paints a more vivid picture of those goose-stepping soldiers and the Allies’ ultimate victory. 

The album concludes with a raucous performance of “Circus Polka.” Written for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to accompany dancing elephants and 50 dancers, the BBC orchestra is suitably vividly and unbuttoned. 

The excellent and informative liner notes by Paul Griffiths only add to the value of this new release. With superior Chandos sound, capturing persuasive, energetic and uplifting performances, this should be on the shelf of any serious Stravinsky collector.

Stravinsky – Symphony in C & Symphony in Three Movements
BBC Philharmonic
Sir Andrew Davis – Conductor
Chandos, CHSA5315

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