The Boston Symphony Orchestra has had a long tradition of Stravinsky performance, beginning with the Pierre Monteux years in the early '20s right through to Seiji Ozawa.
Monteux's recording of "Petrouchka" with the BSO is one of the finest, and the currently unavailable one of "Sacre du printemps" (which RCA really should re-release) is considered one of the best ever recorded. Monteux was the conductor Stravinsky most valued for faithful, understanding performances of his music.
Serge Koussevitsky continued the Stravinsky cause, and gave the world premiere of "ODE" and the US premiere of the Violin Concerto. Since then, Erich Leinsdorf, Michael Tilson Thomas, Ozawa, and Colin Davis, not to mention numerous guests, have given handsome performances of Stravinsky works, though not often enough.
To listen to the all-Stravinsky program ("Ode," the Violin Concerto, Itzhak Perlman, soloist, and "Sacre") that Ozawa led for one performance in Symphony Hall, Boston, and two in Carnegie Hall, New York, recently was to be struck anew with the fact that the BSO is the ideal Stravinsky ensemble. The tone of the strings, the burnished richness of the brass, the rich blends of the winds, and that incomparable percussion section led by tympanist Everett Firth all work together to make something so beautiful, and so absolutely right for the music.
"Ode" was written to honor the memory of Koussevitsky's first wife. It is a haunting, unjustly neglected score. Ozawa gave it a sensitive account. The Violin concerto is a bravura piece, though not so much in the onslaught-of-notes tradition as in the riot-of-rhythms approach to music that is uniquely Stravinsky. Soloist Perlman has such a formidable technique and such a large, varied sound that he has all the musical room he needs to play with. And his now bold, now subtle, richly detailed and witty account -- so ably abetted by Ozawa's rhythmically incisive work with the orchestra -- made for exhilaration.
And more of the same came in "Sacre," the virtuoso orchestral showcase par excellence. Here, the vast musical landscapes came thrillingly to life. Ozawa's rhythmic sense is without peer today, and he controlled (from memory) this complex fabric with uncanny precision. Rarely has his ear for color been more acute, more persuasive. With an ensemble that, during his tenure as music director, he has honed into something extraordinary, the results were formidable. The only dilemma came in deciding which were more impressive -- those huge primitive gashes of sound, or those soft-grained aching hushes that Ozawa masterfully conjured through his orchestra.
It was well-conceived program (something rare for the BSO), and a glorious evening of orchestral musicmaking and performing. How encouraging to note that Philips has just recorded the "Sacre" in Boston, and that DG is due to release the Perlman/Ozawa performance of the concerto, taped two seasons back -- two memorable moments that represent the best of the BSO and os Ozawa, too.