Igor Stravinsky couldn’t help being born Russian, but it was a condition he tried to outgrow. Lured west by fame and stranded there by revolution, he cast himself as a borderless soul, gliding among languages, styles, and homes. (He wound his way through Europe and spent most of his final decades in Los Angeles, that haven of the deracinated.) The New York Philharmonic’s massive festival “The Russian Stravinsky,” which concluded last week, rescued him from that carefully tended persona. Valery Gergiev, who conducted all the concerts, insists that through the wandering decades, the composer’s Russianness never wore off. He merely disguised himself, as befitted a St. Petersburg theater man: The son of a Kirov Opera bass, he grew up a few blocks from the company’s home, the Mariinsky Theatre, which Gergiev now runs. Stravinsky spent his childhood soaking in Russian opera and the rest of his life letting it leach into his cosmopolitan scores.
Gergiev is a tireless promulgator of his nation’s culture, and so was the impresario Serge Diaghilev, who hired Stravinsky to invent a Russian music that would be palatable in Paris. That collaboration yielded The Firebird,Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, the popular troika that Gergiev both honored and moved beyond. On the same night that he led a scorching performance of Firebird, he also gorgeously conducted Les Noces, a tour de force of Russian folk modernism about a rustic wedding. The piece requires a strange detachment of musicians—four pianists, percussionists, solo singers, and a chorus, but no orchestra—so it’s hardly ever played; the Philharmonic last did it in 1982.
The Rite of Spring established the elements of Stravinsky’s musical Russianness: jangling harmonies, limping asymmetrical phrases, repeating rhythms, alternations of thick explosive chords with spare sandpapery timbres, and the rhythms of Russian speech. Stravinsky spent the rest of his career accommodating that rough heritage to a tradition of European polish. Instead of drawing on folktales, he turned to Greek myth. Instead of evoking savage dances, he buffed cool gems. But always, salon sleekness and peasant power jostled in his scores.
Gergiev also conducted the sere opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, with which his unrelenting intensity might seem like an odd fit. Stravinsky and Jean Cocteau had Sophocles’ tragedy translated from Greek into Latin to give the piece a transnational, marmoreal sheen. The composer even declared, perversely, that his music expressed no emotions and should be performed with studious neutrality—advice that Gergiev wisely ignored in favor of rhythmic urgency, brash orchestral colors, and the rich, peaty bassos of the Mariinsky Theatre chorus. In a spectacular performance, Gergiev teased out the thread of Russianness that links the raucous revolution of The Rite of Spring and the poker-faced cool of the twenties.
The composer’s avant-garde Parisian friends may have invented their particular fusion of the modern and the antique, but Stravinsky recognized neoclassicism as an old St. Petersburg tradition: Russians had been glorifying the eighteenth century for years. (During Stravinsky’s childhood, even the Mariinsky itself got a neoclassical overhaul.) The source of Oedipus Rex lies not on the Aegean, but on the banks of the Neva; Gergiev restored the score to life with a shot of Russian soul.
The Russian Stravinsky: A Philharmonic Festival
Conducted by Valery Gergiev