Proms Stravinsky Day Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Given the "reworking" theme at this year's Proms, it was inevitable that Stravinsky would figure prominently. In the event we got a Stravinsky Day - or Stravinsky afternoon and evening, to be precise. A "semi-staged" performance of The Soldier's Tale opened the proceedings, then came a brave orchestral / choral concert of Stravinsky rarities, and the evening concluded with a nicely balanced programme: the chamber-scale Cantata, and the Mass framing the Concerto for Piano and Wind.

Radio 3 listeners got a slightly better deal: more intimate sound (especially helpful in the final concert), plus a broadcast of the previous evening's lecture by Richard Taruskin, "Stravinsky and Us". On the radio, concert items were punctuated by short interviews between the announcer Chris de Souza and the noted Stravinsky authority Stephen Walsh. I only heard the last few of these, having tuned in to the car radio after leaving the Albert Hall at 8.30pm, but what I heard was disappointing. Walsh sounded unhappy with the format, even slightly disdainful. There were clearer hints of disdain in his programme note to Stravinsky's The Fairy's Kiss - not for Stravinsky, of course, but for Tchaikovsky, whose music Stravinsky brilliantly reworked for this ballet. Stravinsky, we were told, made virtues out of Tchaikovskyan defects: "vulgarity", "excess", "weak- ness ... for sequence and unvaried repetition".

Stravinsky might well have approved, in public, of what Walsh wrote. But the performance seemed - to me at least - to tell another story. The Fairy's Kiss is actually one of the least ironic of Stravinsky's reworkings - or if not, the irony is plainly too subtle for these vulgar ears. I find it hard to disagree with the conductor Oliver Knussen: surely Stravinsky simply "adored" the music, every bit as much as with the Gesualdo reworkings that followed - if not more so. The borrowing of the gorgeously sentimental Tchaikovsky song "None but the Lonely Heart" in the final scene is remarkably uncritical, void of Stravinskyan sadism. The concluding horn solo is possibly the truest marriage of minds in all Stravinsky: essence of Tchaikovsky, distilled as only his great Russian successor knew, and a uniquely lovely moment. Oliver Knussen conducted it with restraint, but with obvious affection, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave every impression of having realised his wishes to the full.

After this, Richard Taruskin's points seemed all the sharper. Taruskin is a first-rate mind (the author of an imposing new two-volume study of Stravinsky), but also a superb communicator - which is all to the good; someone so skilful at challenging received ideas (and not only vulgar received ideas) should be heard as widely as possible. In the dock this time was the myth of Stravinsky the "pure", "absolute" musician, the despiser of "extra musical ideas". Taruskin gave the mythical Stravinsky a hard time, but then in a masterly coup de theatre he raised some very big questions indeed. How could just about every commentator ignore the anti-semitism of the central text in the Cantata, composed in 1951-52, when news of the Holocaust was still fresh? The answer, according to Taruskin, lies in the lofty distaste of most Stravinskyan writers for ethical considerations - what have they to do with "the music itself"? Could it be, Taruskin asked, that the great divorce of ethics and aesthetics, especially in the post-war world, is one of the factors that has led to the fall in prestige of classical music?

Huge questions, and surely the best response is not the academic one - to finely comb the speaker's argument for faults - but to take his ideas away and meditate on them, carefully and slowly. It was hard, after this, to know what to think when we reached the offending poem in the Cantata, "Tomorrow shall be my dancing day", which arraigns the Jews "because they loved darkness rather than light". Like many English choristers, I sang this line so often I forgot what it meant, if ever I realised in the first place. Was Stravinsky's understanding any deeper? He often insisted that it was the sound of the words, not what they meant, that inspired him - but when a professed Christian comes to set a religious text, there must be some engagement with the meaning.

Those still in the Albert Hall (or at least those still ignorant of Taruskin's arguments) will have been better able simply to enjoy the Cantata, sung with finely controlled eloquence by the soprano Teresa Shaw, tenor Neil Jenkins and the Tavener Choir, and elegantly accompanied by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Andrew Parrott. The same choir and ensemble were on slightly shakier form in parts of the Mass, though there were enough glimpses of Stravinsky the sensualist, and of fascinating moments when something more personal seems to slip beneath the wire. Wayne Marshall's crisp, off-front playing made the Concerto for Piano and Wind an exhilarating experience, and his encore - a witty "improvised" (was it really on-the-spot invention?) tribute to Stravinsky - was pure delight.

For this listener, The Soldier's Tale came in the era BT - Before Taruskin. Choreographer Oliver Hindle extended his sweep to take in the whole - usually it's only the Princess who dances. At first, the soldier's mannered marching (Nijinsky crossed with John Cleese) irritated. But then came Timothy Cross's elegantly malignant Devil, and we were away. Unusually, the dancers and the narrator Simon Russell Beale didn't play for laughs - but then, we English are adept at diffusing serious messages through humour. And The Soldier's Tale does have a serious message - crudely put: "You can't have everything." I can't wait to read Taruskin on that.

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