When Stravinsky brought his radical ballet Petrushka to Vienna in 1912, the composer recounts in his autobiography, the orchestra was full of complaints about the demands of the score. Disillusioned by this, Stravinsky found comfort from the unlikely figure of the man who raised and lowered the stage curtains. “Don’t let’s be downhearted”, he said, “I’ve been here for 55 years... It was just the same with Tristan”.

Jonathan Morton © Tara Moore
Jonathan Morton
© Tara Moore

It’s a bit of a shame, sometimes, that so many of Stravinsky’s stories are fabricated. But if treated with a certain scepticism, his comments remain a fascinating way to look at his music and his life: it’s intriguing to say the least that he seemed to want to link his own work to Wagner’s – a composer he claimed to have no time for at all. And it’s also intriguing how often his comments about his music don’t gel with the experience of hearing it. Clarinettist Mark van de Wiel introduced Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo on Friday by informing us that the first movement was, in the composer’s words, “a mechanical toy”. My suspicion is that this description has rather more to do with the European Zeitgeist of 1919, buzzing with excitement about various new technologies, than the actual piece – which, especially in van de Wiel’s wonderfully sensitive interpretation, sounds rather delicate and human. Perhaps, like Petrushka himself, it’s a toy that comes to life.

Just as unrevealing as Stravinsky, in its way, is Oliver Knussen’s Secret Psalm, which was the central work of this miniature recital by London Sinfonietta soloists last Friday, part of the busy, exciting Kings Place Festival. The piece was written in 1990, in memory of London Sinfonietta’s Artistic Director Michael Vyner, and works in numerous references to “the slow movement of one very well-known concerto” which was a favourite of his. New Sinfonietta Principal Jonathan Morton commented on this before his performance: “If you recognise it, so be it”; embarassingly, I didn’t, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this sweet, sober miniature, as precise and glowing as Knussen’s music always is, but with an added bitter tinge. Morton played physically and expressively, teasing out its intricacies with great care.

The meat of the recital took us back to Stravinsky, and the suite from The Soldier’s Tale in his arrangement for violin, clarinet and piano. This was a rendition from van de Wiel, Morton and pianist John Constable which met the amazing neatness of Stravinsky’s writing with real panache. It’s a stringently scored work at the best of times, originally written for seven players in the knotty harmonic language of Stravinsky’s “Russian”-period style, but what’s particularly notable about this arrangement is its incredible concision. Nothing seems missing from the more fully scored version of the suite, despite the drastic cuts in forces; in fact, the tight corners of the instrumentation almost seem to add something in terms of rigour. Stravinsky is meant to have talked about the terror of the blank page, his need for tight limitations before his creativity could fully flourish. Unfortunately, I can’t source the quotation (please let me know if you can help). Typical Stravinsky – the one time I believe him, he probably didn’t say it.

****1