This nine-CD box was a lot more attractive when it first showed up in 1999, before Sony Music introduced its Direct Stream Digital mastering and super-audio CDs -- it's not quite the state-of-the-art reissue that it seemed then, as the state-of-the-art has been advancing ever-faster, but it's still an alluring package. The concept behind the Original Jacket Collection is to put together a coherent body of work by a performing artist -- the core of his/her repertory, as in the case of the George Szell set, built around his Beethoven symphonic and orchestral recordings, or the Bruno Walter box, centering on his Mahler and Bruckner recordings. Sometimes they're a little broader than that, as with the Leonard Bernstein box, which centers on the rather widely dispersed highlights of his repertory, from Haydn to Ives; the resulting CDs, re-creating the programming of the classic LPs concerned, are packaged in mini-LP sleeves, re-creating the original artwork in miniature, as well. The packaging and the whole concept behind it originated in Japan, where Sony Music (on Miles Davis, Al Kooper, et al.), BMG (on everyone from Toscanini to Elvis Presley), and other labels have been releasing audiophile-quality remasterings -- usually either 20-bit K2 or 24-bit -- of classic LPs in mini-LP sleeves, since the mid-'90s. In the case of the domestic Sony Original Jacket Collection series, there's not as much consistency -- some boxes, such as the Szell/Beethoven set, have recordings that have been upgraded from their prior CD editions, while others, such as this set, offer music that isn't otherwise available on CD.
In Stravinsky's case, the boundaries for a representative box are a little tougher to define, as it was his work as a composer across a half century that defined his primary importance and provided the raison d'etre for his work as a conductor and recording artist in the first place -- born in 1882, he was the first composer of major international stature to live well into the era of recordings, and to develop the determination (partly fueled by the financial rewards to be realized therein, and aided and encouraged after the 1940s by Columbia Masterworks label chief Goddard Lieberson) to leave behind his own interpretations of his most important works; and because he remained active through the 1960s, into his ninth decade, a large body of those recordings exist in a fully technically viable state (done almost exclusively for Columbia Records across four decades). Indeed, he recorded over such an extended period that in many instances he left behind two or more recordings of his most important works that could rightfully have been considered authoritative at various times, some decades apart. Stravinsky's recording history was complicated by the reality of his initially minimal training as a conductor; over the decades, he got better as he amassed experience leading hundreds of performances of his most important works in concert, but unlike his half-generation-older contemporary Richard Strauss -- who was a virtuoso conductor and, indeed, preferred to conduct the works by composers other than himself -- Stravinsky's worth at the podium was confined to his ability to shape performances of his own music, and even within that definition it was a highly nuanced and narrowly focused ability. Complicating his recording history even further was Stravinsky's practice of periodically revising his works in a quest to preserve their copyrights and maintain the stream of royalties generated from their performance and recording. With one exception -- the "bonus" ninth disc -- the music here is confined to Stravinsky's last cycle of interpretations of the pieces involved, all in stereo and dating from the very late '50s through the early '70s. Those recordings were done with the assistance of conductor Robert Craft, whose unique collaborative relationship with the composer over the final two decades of his life brought to his recorded work a level of polish and consistency that had been achieved only part of the time in Stravinsky's prior studio efforts. These were the versions of the pieces that the composer, then in his seventies and eighties, understood as his likely last thoughts on them in terms of how they were represented, and he intended to stand in perpetuity. That said, they're not necessarily the final word on performance of the music at hand, because there are obviously, at any given moment, dozens of virtuoso orchestras and insightful conductors with ideas and approaches of their own to be heard that are valid as interpretation. However, the work here is a realization of how the creator himself, in his later life, visualized the works and interpreted his own scores, and set them down for us to hear. And if they're not the place to stop, they're certainly the place to start listening.
Most of what is here was done with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, really two separate groups of musicians put together on either coast specifically to work with Stravinsky and Craft on these recordings. If not as impressive a name as the New York Philharmonic, with which he'd previously cut most of the large-scale works represented here, they were a more flexible and dexterous ensemble when it came to the performance of the relatively unfamiliar works here, while on pieces such as The Firebird Ballet suite or the suite from Petrushka they were more responsive to the direction of Stravinsky and Craft in terms of adopting the nuances and details of playing that the composer desired. Additionally, rehearsing and recording the Columbia Symphony Orchestra was not remotely as financially demanding for the record label or the personnel involved as, say, holding the New York Philharmonic or the Los Angeles Philharmonic through extensive rehearsals and recording sessions would have been. The beauty of these recordings, a product of Stravinsky's and Craft's combined efforts, lies in the fact that the Columbia Symphony ends up, at its best, sounding like an extension of Stravinsky himself, in much the same manner that Wilhelm Furtwängler could get the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonic orchestras to play like they were virtually extensions of his own fingers. He gets the exquisitely fine, nuanced details in the playing that he wants. And his austere but highly precise and finely detailed approach, to works as varied as The Rite of Spring and L'Histoire du Soldat, is, in its own subtle way, thoroughly beguiling, a case of less being decidedly more. And it works perfectly within the confines of each performance. Additionally, his sheer restraint has its virtues in the listening experience here -- perhaps it was simply a matter of all the stars being aligned properly, in terms of Craft being present to fill whatever gaps in Stravinsky's conducting technique still existed, the technology finally being fully matched to the music, and having in producer John McClure the right man running the technical side of the sessions whence most of the music here comes, but the sound of these recordings is seldom less than gorgeous, with vivid textures in the playing and also the subtle but very effective use of stereo as a way of enhancing those timbres and musical textures -- not in the flashy manner of stereophile recordings, but rather, in ways that grow naturally out of the music, such as divided but close-proximity strings. Some people may question the choices of programming -- Petrushka is reduced to a suite missing some 10 minutes of delightful music, but this was evidently a necessary decision by the composer in 1961 to preserve a copyright that was soon to lapse in the United States. And some listeners may doubt the wisdom of the decision to limit these compact discs to the content of the original LPs -- there are 405 minutes for a nine-CD set, or an average of just over 40 minutes per disc, and the man left behind a lot more than this, even limiting his work to the stereo era; on the other hand, no one can say that the content isn't weighty or substantial in the extreme, note for note and measure for measure, regardless of whether a CD runs 35 minutes or 52 minutes; Stravinsky's work was nothing if not challenging and seductive. What's more, even the material on the mono disc, a CD conversion of an LP entitled Meet The Composer: Igor Stravinsky, originally compiled and released in 1948 with the advent of the LP era, contains so much sonic information in the transfer that on pieces such as Fireworks (dating from 1946), one gets extremely close and crisp sounds, despite everything on it predating the advent of magnetic tape recording. The annotation is full if not thorough -- one heartily wishes that the booklet included the full original notes from the jackets, though it is possible to read them off the CD sleeves with a magnifier in all but one case; and a more direct account of why certain editorial decisions were made might have made this set more satisfying to those with questions. Why, for instance, do we get both the 1960s recording of the Ebony Concerto with Benny Goodman and the original 1948 recording of the same piece with Woody Herman, but no other overlapping across the decades? There is a perfectly fine 1940s recording by Stravinsky of the Firebird Ballet in its 1945 suite (represented here in a 1960s recording), from early 1946, that would be illuminating for contrast; and, even more important, there's Stravinsky's 1940 New York Philharmonic recording of The Rite of Spring -- the latter is even mentioned by Craft with admiration in his essay in this package, and he is right; it is unique in its savagery and power, even if it has some technical and performance flaws that the version here manages to avoid (the high-octane, high-compression power of the mega-virtuoso Philharmonic, especially after several days' frantic rehearsal [and emendation of orchestral parts] under Stravinsky's baton, created a unique musical moment on record, worth hearing despite a ragged moment of two near the end, and just as valid in its way as the later recording represented here). Additionally, in terms of complaints on a more basic, practical level, as long as Sony was imitating the work of its Japanese division with this series, it might at least have emulated the Japanese practice of putting the CDs in miniature inner-sleeves to protect them going in and out of, or being stored in, the mini-LP sleeves. But none of those matters seriously reduce the value of this set in terms of what it promises and what it delivers -- it offers rewards in multiple layers for the listener, casual or serious; indeed, this set proves that Stravinsky's Stravinsky is as essential listening as Bruno Walter's Mahler or Szell's Beethoven. (Incidentally, those who get this set and want to hear some of those earlier recordings by the composer should seek out Igor Stravinsky: Composer and Conductor, Vol. 1 on the Andante label, which delves into his earlier interpretations of a lot of the music here).