This Naxos CD is simply essential if you are a fan of the music of Igor Stravinsky. It contains rarely-recorded (or performed) works in uniformly excellent performances and sound quality. The 11-minute Sonata for Two Pianos (1943-44) is a very accessible work in a rare genre and the two pianists do a terrific job with it. This is pleasant and light music that is hard not to enjoy. By contrast, the 5-minute Elegie for Solo Viola (1944) is a melancholy work that is played beautifully here. The "Bluebird" (1941) is an arrangement of about six minutes from Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty" ballet music for chamber orchestra. As Robert Craft writes in his excellent notes, Stravinsky improved upon Tchaikovsky's orchestration here and I strongly recommend giving it a listen. It is played to perfection by the Twentieth Century Chamber Ensemble led by Craft and, as the last work on the CD, leaves the listener with a "sweet" feeling after some of the modernism that precedes it. The 14-minute Abraham and Isaac ballad (1962-63) is perhaps the greatest of Stravinsky's serial works. It is not as accessible as the Sonata or Bluebird but it is a very powerful and memorable work. Stravinsky dedicated it to "the people of Israel" and personally sent the manuscript as a gift to Jerusalem's mayor. It is the only work by Stravinsky that is sung in Hebrew, taking the text of Genesis 22:1-19 which tells the story of Abraham being tested by God to sacrifice his son Isaac and how when God sees that Abraham is willing to do so, He makes known that He does not wish to see any harm come to Isaac as He does not delight in human sacrifice. It is a very dramatic story and hearing it sung so passionately by baritone David Wilson-Johnson accompanied by Stravinsky's dramatic music played by the Philharmonia Orchestra led by Craft is very exciting. The only work featured on this album that I just don't enjoy is the 15-minute Requiem Canticles (1965-66), which is written in Stravinsky's late serial style. It is, after all, a requiem and it was played at Stravinsky's funeral, so we shouldn't expect it to be much fun!
The title of this disc comes from the 16-and-a-half minute Duo Concertant, played here by violinist Jennifer Frautschi and pianist Jeremy Denk. Each of these performers is a master of their instrument and are among the foremost soloists of our time. Frautschi has recorded this work before, on her debut album Ravel: Tzigane; Sonata for violin & Piano/Stravinsky: Duo Concertante for Violin & Piano. The timings on the first four movements of this work are taken slightly slower in this newer recording (some nine years after the earlier recording), while the fifth movement comes out at exactly the same timing on both recordings: 3:16! Both performances are excellent and they are better than the other performances of this work that I have heard. Frautschi seems to emphasize the Romantic undercurrent of the Duo Concertant a bit more in the earlier recording, while in the newer recording the contrast between the two instruments is brought out to a greater degree. I found Jeremy Denk's accompaniment here to be slightly more sensitive than Marta Aznavoorian's accompaniment on the earlier recording, as good as that was. Ultimately, one should acquire the earlier recording due to the outstanding performances of the the other three works it features while this newer disc is a must due to its excellent program of Stravinsky rarities.
While some may find the idea of a mixed-bag CD unappealing, I can reassure you that this is a very satisfying program to listen to (although you may end up skipping the Requiem, depending on your taste). The two standouts are the Duo Concertant and Abraham and Isaac, the latter being one of the only existing recordings of the work. The meticulous and thorough notes by Stravinsky's friend and collaborator Robert Craft are almost worth the price of admission alone! If you consider yourself a fan of Stravinsky, don't hesitate for a second to grab this excellent compilation of his rarities.