Fifty years to the day after Stravinsky died, the Gürzenich Orchestra performed this marathon tribute, across three Cologne venues, deploying recent filmed performances of orchestral and chamber pieces. It began with one of his most original works, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments. In lockdown streamings this has the virtue that its 23 wind and brass instruments make a big sound, but can be socially distanced around a platform. Normally one sees these players ranged behind empty string desks, giving the impression that the ‘real music’ comes later. Here there was no clutter to detract from a splendid performance, with Principal Conductor François-Xavier Roth master of the different but related tempi of the three distinct blocks of material, so that the final occurrence of the chorale was, for all its ritual austerity, supremely eloquent.

Nathan Braude plays Elegie in Museum Ludwig
© Gürzenich Orchester Köln

There followed two neo-classical concertos, the Capriccio for piano and orchestra and the Violin Concerto. Ninety years ago the composer had played his Capriccio with this orchestra, before conducting his Violin Concerto. Here the pianist was Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, who was probably a lot more accurate than the composer had been. Asked by Roth, whose talks and interviews moderated this marathon, about Stravinsky’s keyboard skill, Bavouzet suggested “Not on the level of Bartók or Prokofiev, but better than Ravel, which is not difficult”! Certainly Bavouzet displayed virtuosity of a high order, despite using a score. His brilliance in the ‘Keystone Cops’ finale made you wonder why Stravinsky never nailed down any of his abortive film projects. Vilde Frang’s playing of the Violin Concerto was dazzling too, and emotionally spot on, her Aria II romantic yet chaste. Another Frenchman was on the podium for this, Fabien Gabel, as rhythmically precise as Roth.

There was more neo-romantic music to close the orchestral part of this marathon, with the Divertimento Stravinsky drew from his ballet The Fairy's Kiss, based on material from Tchaikovsky. Roth returned and gave a performance that made me wonder why we don’t hear this suite more often – at 20 minutes much more accessible than the 42-minute full score, which even Robert Craft found garrulous. The first flute breathed enchantments in the opening movement, the chugging horns of the first of the Danses suisses were engagingly foot-tapping, and the cello enticingly beckoned us into the closing Pas de deux.

The middle section of the marathon then moved to Cologne’s Museum Ludwig, its Russian modernist collection an ideal backdrop, where various chamber works where played by soloists of the Gürzenich Orchestra. The 1944 Elegy for solo viola sounded surprisingly substantial in sound in the echoing empty spaces of the museum, a haunting piece in an evocative setting. The Suite italienne which Stravinsky arranged from Pulcinella for cello and piano was here heard in an arrangement just for three cellos by Georg Heimbach, who played it with two colleagues from the section. This uniform sonority had charm and was well played, even if never sounding more than a pièce d’occasion. The Three Pieces for String Quartet were heard in the original form that occasioned outrage in 1914, and sounds best in a performance like this that relishes their eccentricities (the middle movement is even titled Excentrique). The wonderful Octet for winds was conducted by Harry Ogg, who ensured care for its many contrapuntal passages. The bassoons gurgled with delight, as often required by this composer, and the trumpet sealed the coda with throwaway insouciance.

Three Pieces for string quartet in Museum Ludwig
© Gürzenich Orchester Köln

That would have made a superb finale, except that the marathon’s climax required a stroll into the old town of Cologne, to visit Papa Joe’s Biersalon, itself a tribute to the era of much of this music. “The beer’s a bit expensive, but the jazz every night is free,” says the website. The programme gained three extra pieces in the meantime. The players were greeted by the Fanfare for a New Theatre, the two trumpeters placed on a staircase. Then we heard the early Pastorale in its 1933 version for violin, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet and bassoon, and the Lied ohne Name for two bassoons. I missed the point of the ensuing speech on Igor’s love of hard liquor, and recounting of his feeble pun – “My God, I love Scotch so much, I think my name must be Igor Stra-whisky” (I am not making this up). So we reached the one pre-announced work to close this marathon, Ragtime. Alas they had no cimbalom, which permeates the texture with its jangling quasi-concertante role, and the soft-voiced honky-tonk upright piano that Papa Joe’s had was no substitute. The players gathered at the bar for a Scotch as the credits rolled. After three hours and twenty minutes of note-taking, I decided to follow suit, and raise a very small glass in homage to a very great artist, and in gratitude for some very fine performances.


This performance was reviewed from the Gürzenich Orchester Köln video stream

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