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Ballet is rarely treated with the same respect as its operatic cousin. Stravinsky, however, provides a brilliant expectation to that rule with his dance scores requiring our full attention. Charles M Joseph’s strong new study peers at Stravinsky’s life and work through the windows of his Terpsichorean masterpieces. Its clear-cut prose allows us to see, through one genre, how a great chameleon changed over the course of the 20th century.

Joseph offers a rich narrative of Stravinsky’s working methods. Illustrated with snapshots of the rhythms from The Rite of Spring or the verse metres that inspired Apollo, the development of ideas is wonderfully clear as Joseph skips between these totemic scores. So while Nijinsky found Stravinsky’s music profoundly challenging to work with, Joseph leads us by the hand through this often complex terrain.

Occasionally, Stravinsky appears too much like an island, making and breaking his own rules as the dance develops. As such, the musical history of the ballet genre is a little undercooked. We are treated to a broad cultural perspective of where Russia was at the turn of the century, but the formal advances of Tchaikovsky – surely the genre’s greatest pioneer before The Firebird – merit too little attention. If seen in that light, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring appear more grounded in the imperial tradition than Joseph lets on. Later links between Schoenberg and Stravinsky around the Agon period are similarly played down.

Ultimately, these are minor gripes in what is a vivid study of Stravinsky’s character and compositions. After years with his subject, Joseph has a bird’s eye command of the material. Seizing important details, rather than getting bogged down in knotty analysis (available elsewhere in any event), this is a refreshingly approachable read. And it rightly places Stravinsky’s ballets at the forefront of his output.

GAVIN PLUMLEY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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