Newly Discovered Early Stravinsky Work Comes to CD

Riccardo Chailly includes several early Stravinsky works as context for the world premiere recording of Funeral Song.
(Silvia Lelli, Decca Classics)

Stravinsky: Chant funèbre (world premiere recording), Fireworks, Scherzo fantastique, The Faun and the Shepherdess, The Rite of Spring. Sophie Koch, mezzo-soprano, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly, conductor. Decca 483 2562

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW – It’s not often that a significant work by a major composer is unearthed after being presumed lost. The archives have been thoroughly scoured, the composer’s musical trajectory is set, and we think we know everything there is to be known. Hence, the excitement over the discovery of an early Stravinsky piece called Chant funèbre, or Funeral Song, in the spring of 2015 as the accidental result of a dig through the dusty back rooms of the St. Petersburg State Conservatory during a refurbishment.

Stravinsky (far left) next to his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov in 1908.

A 1908 memorial tribute to Stravinsky’s mentor, Rimsky-Korsakov, Funeral Song had been performed only once in 1909 and then was sent to the archives, where it lay undisturbed for over 100 years, surviving revolutions, wars, and the entire history of the Soviet Union. Amid a flurry of international headlines, Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra presented the long-delayed second performance of the piece on December 2, 2016, broadcast live on, the C-SPAN of classical music, and more performances worldwide quickly followed.

But Riccardo Chailly managed to snag the first recording rights with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and coupled with a collection of early Stravinsky works as context, it suggests a young composer who had seemingly found a language but became adrift and uncertain after the death of his revered teacher.

At first, one is full of anticipation as the music begins with a similar kind of mysterious rustling that opens The Firebird, which was written almost immediately after Funeral Song. So far, so good. Then Stravinsky tries to conjure some magic under the spell of Tchaikovsky – the swirling chromatic rhetoric reminiscent of Francesca da Rimini – but never quite gets going amid some repetitive stretches and paraphrases of “Siegfried’s Funeral March.” At about the 8:40 mark, some serious mourning starts to take hold, and here one characteristic of the future Stravinsky turns up: the avoidance of sentimentality. He grieves, he’s lost, but he remains stoic. It finally ends on a held-out, thoughtful A minor chord, and the listener is left up in the air.

Stravinsky on a postcard, circa 1903.

Stravinsky may have thought many years after the fact that Funeral Song was his best pre-Diaghilev composition (although he could not remember the music), but two of the disc’s companion works, Fireworks and Scherzo fantastique (both written before Funeral Song), suggest otherwise. In these pieces, we do sense the spark of genius that attracted Diaghilev and led him to throw the young Stravinsky into the deep end to compose The Firebird in place of the lazy Anatoly Lyadov. When heard in their context, Funeral Song sounds like a student work, or one by a composer temporarily knocked off his axis. For his part, Chailly takes it faster than the world premiere performance under Gergiev – it comes in at about 10 minutes and 20 seconds here, whereas Gergiev’s was about 11:50 – and Gergiev’s had more brooding Russian atmosphere.

The first half of the disc is sequenced in reverse opus order, no doubt due to the news-making value of Funeral Song, Op. 5, which comes first, followed by Op. 4 (Fireworks), then Op. 3 (Scherzo Fantastique), and then Op. 2 (The Faun and the Shepherdess). To have done it in proper chronological order would have created a story line, showing Stravinsky gradually finding a distinctive voice, then losing his way in uncertainty after the death of Rimsky, then jumping ahead to the revolutionary piece that shocked and changed the world, The Rite of Spring. But that’s what programming controls on CD players are for.

In The Faun and the Shepherdess, a cycle of three songs on Pushkin poems, the Stravinsky personality is not apparent at first. The language harkens back to Tchaikovsky and perhaps a bit of Debussy, along with some singsong children’s elements, though we can hear premonitory hints of The Firebird in the third song. Thanks in part to an attractive performance by mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch, Chailly’s version has more color and character than Stravinsky’s own.

Chailly’s performance of Fireworks has enough sparkle and animation to it, while his Scherzo fantastique is controlled and subtle, with less of the vivacity of the composer’s recording. An overly mannered, elongated opening bassoon solo gets The Rite of Spring off on the wrong foot, but gradually Part I gets on track with deliberate speeds and some rhythmic force. Part II opens conventionally, soporifically, but the “Glorification of the Chosen One” wakes everyone up at last, and the rest pounds home with adequate power and fury.

This is obviously not a Rite of Spring for the ages, but then, that’s not why you would buy this CD. No, the raison d’être for this disc is Funeral Song, which, whatever its shortcomings, should be an object of fascination for anyone who wants to get to know Stravinsky’s origins better.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.