Igor Stravinsky: Top 20 Recordings

Monday, March 11, 2024

Stravinsky was one of the most important and influential of all 20th century composers. Here we list 20 of our favourite recordings of his masterpieces that all make for highly rewarding listening

Stravinsky Top 20

The catalogue is bursting with outstanding recordings of Igor Stravinsky's music, hardly surprising given how important his compositions – and particularly the The Rite of Spring – were to the development of music in the 20th century. So, in producing a list of just 20, we are inevitably leaving some great recordings out, not least a few by the composer himself.

This list, though, should act as an ideal introduction to Stravinsky's music, ranging as it does from the iconic ballets and orchestral music to his less familiar chamber music and later works.

And because great music is always open to different interpretations we have suggested alternative approaches – for instance Patricia Kopatchinskaja versus Isabelle Faust as soloists in the Violin Concerto – that will appeal to different tastes. 

The Firebird Suite. The Rite of Spring. Scherzo, Tango

Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer (Channel Classics)

In a word, this is a ‘musical’ performance, one where every note seems an inevitable outgrowth of its predecessor. It’s not the most viscerally exciting version on disc (Gergiev, Dorati and Markevitch share that honour between them) but, as with Peter Eötvös and the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie (2004, BMC – another excellent production), avoids what Stravinsky himself labelled self-glorification. (Rob Cowan, May 2012)

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Petrushka. The Rite of Spring. The Firebird. Pulcinella. Jeu de Cartes

LSO / Claudio Abbado (DG)

Claudio Abbado succeeds in conveying the kaleidoscopic brilliance of Stravinsky's [Petrushka] score and secures from the LSO playing of real dramatic intensity. Phrases are shaped with far more care and rhythms articulated with greater vitality than on Dorati's record, and throughout the score there is a powerful sense of dramatic atmosphere. (Robert Layton, November 1981)

The Rite of Spring & The Firebird

Orchestre de Paris / Klaus Mäkelä (Decca)

This Rite is all about inner parts in high relief and rhythms that are truly physical and always point to a bodily expression. We should be reminded that this is a ballet before it is a concert piece and though it is incredibly hard in these times of super-virtuosity to rekindle that shock-of-the-new astonishment, a conductor like Mäkelä can and does startle the senses with his nose for detail and atmosphere. (Edward Seckerson, May 2023)

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The Firebird

Les Siècles / François-Xavier Roth (Harmonia Mundi)

Roth and Les Siècles help Stravinsky’s phoenix rise from the flames, a crackling performance and a fine tribute to the spirit and daring of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. (The Top Choice in Mark Pullinger's Gramophone Collection article on The Firebird, January 2024)

Jurowski Conducts Stravinsky, Vol 1

London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski

The ‘Dance of the Earth’ powers in with hair-raising abandon – it has to be among the most exciting (and riskiest) on disc – and from the ‘Glorification of the Chosen One’ through to the convulsions of the ‘Sacrificial Dance’ there is a death-defying edge-of-seat primitivism that is so much more than mere virtuosity. (Edward Seckerson, September 2022)

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Le Chant du Rossignol. L'Histoire du Soldat Suite. Scherzo fantastique. Le Roi des étoiles

Cleveland Choir and Orchestra / Pierre Boulez (DG)

It is Le Chant du Rossignol which is the disc’s finest achievement. This work has long been a Boulez favourite‚ comparable to Debussy’s Jeux in its coherently episodic design‚ though much more radical than the Debussy in its determinedly non­cumulative final stages. This performance has all Boulez’s intellectual discernment when it comes to balancing textures and juxtaposing tone colours‚ but it also provides an enthralling journey through the weird rituals of an exotic expressive world that Boulez himself reinvented as a composer in the decade after 1945. (Arnold Whittall, December 2001)

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Symphony in C. Symphony in Three Movements. Symphony of Psalms

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Simon Rattle (Warner Classics)

The real highlight of this recording is Rattle’s pressing but never impatient account of what in my view is Stravinsky’s greatest symphony, the terse and poignant Symphony in C, music forged in the wake of illness and death but that only ever suggests anguish, never confesses it. Tchaikovsky’s spirit looms large, especially in the first movement, at the onset of the angry central climax where Rattle and his Berliners achieve considerable intensity. (Rob Cowan, August 2008)

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Symphony in Three Movements

Columbia Symphony Orchestra / Stravinsky

I reckon that if it’s not the only account of the Symphony in Three Movements that you’d want, it would certainly be in the top three – not least because it confirms this piece as crucial to the evolution of symphonic thinking in the 20th century, something from which Simpson might have dissented, but which Stravinsky follows through with unfailing conviction. Few post-war symphonies are not at least a little indebted to its example, and the present recording goes almost all the way to explaining why. In other words, it’s a ‘classic’ by any other name! (Richard Whitehouse, Classics Reconsidered, December 2022)

Oedipus Rex

RPO / Sir Colin Davis (Warner Classics)

Davis’s first version, with an ensemble cast from Sadler’s Wells Opera, has unique authority and intensity. For your Narrator, you can choose between Jean Marais (in French) and Ralph Richardson (in English), but either way it’s a staggering performance that knocks you sideways. (The Top Choice in Tim Ashley's Gramophone Collection article on Oedipus Rex, March 2016)

Apollon musagète

Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Alexander Janiczek

Stravinsky’s own recordings from the mid-1960s are rhythmically taut, as one might expect, but what comes over in these new recordings by the justly lauded Chamber Orchestra of Europe is the lyricism of Apollo. Stravinsky as a melodist? It’s a claim rarely made for him but this impeccable and stylish performance radiates melodic appeal devoid of sentimentality. Overall this is a most attractive release, an imaginative coupling and an excellent recording. (Peter Dickinson, January 2010)

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Stravinsky in America

LSO / Michael Tilson Thomas (Sony / BMG) 

What makes this a hugely entertaining as well as an instructive survey is the infectious zest of the performances. The enjoyable racket of the Circus Polka, the gorgeous trumpet tune in Scenes de ballet (now if Stravinsky had persuaded Ira Gershwin, say, to write a lyric for that it might have made a fortune), the sheer delight in inventing entrancing new sonorities that is central to Agon, the more arcane but none the less obvious pleasure in the Aldous Huxley Variations of constructing perfect, crystalline mechanisms – all these are conveyed with exemplary but not in the least chilly precision. (Michael Oliver, Awards issue 1997)

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The Rake’s Progress

London Sinfonietta / Riccardo Chailly (Decca)

The kind of rapport one expects between conductor and performers who have recently worked together in the theatre is especially important when the conductor takes such a forceful view of the work as Chailly evidently does of The Rake, and from the outset the London Sinfonietta match him in both precision and panache. The recording gives full and appropriate prominence to the glorious sound of the Sinfonietta's woodwind section, but all departments of the ensemble are admirable. In its balance of brilliance and sensitivity, this is playing of the first class. (Arnold Whittall, February 1985)

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Andrew Staples & Pauline Cheviller; Finnish National Opera / Esa-Pekka Salonen (Pentatone)

Salonen's approach is pitched somewhere between the steely solemnity of Stravinsky’s own New York Philharmonic version (Sony, 11/57) and the more effusive lyricism of Kent Nagano with the LPO (Virgin/Erato, 6/92). Orchestral textures are clean yet sensuous, rhythms exactingly precise. The instrumental solos, sometimes twining round the voices like obbligatos, sometimes carrying the narrative forwards, are all beautifully done. In lesser hands, the score can seem episodic. Salonen, however, forges it into a unified drama, in which not a note or word seems wasted. (Tim Ashley, October 2018)

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Les Noces and other choral works

New London Chamber Choir and Ensemble & The Voronezh Chamber Choir / James Wood & Oleg Shepel (Hyperion)

Anglo-Russian entente, at least in terms of its musicians, is central to the success of a reading that vividly encompasses the sum total of this piece. It confirms that precision and expression are no more incompatible in Les noces than in any other work by Stravinsky. (The Top Choice in Richard Whitehouse's Gramophone Collection on Les noces, September 2017)

Violin Concerto & Chamber Works

Isabelle Faust, Les Siècles / François-Xavier Roth (Harmonia Mundi)

So this is the Stravinsky Violin Concerto I have so often seen on the page but rarely heard in performance. Three-dimensional – with a startling inner clarity and rhythmic keenness that brings if off the page in ways you couldn’t imagine. Honestly, it’s like having one’s ears freshly syringed. (Edward Seckerson, April 2023)

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Violin Concerto

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (Naïve)

In the pageant-like first movement and the energetic journey of the finale, Kopatchinskaja makes use of a remarkable range of bow strokes and tonal colourings to give each episode its own vivid identity, while the two central movements allow her to play gracefully and, in ‘Aria II’, to give a strong impression of improvisation. Throughout both concertos, conductor and orchestra appear to support with enthusiasm Kopatchinskaja’s vision of the music, with many distinguished solo contributions. (Duncan Druce, January 2014)

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The Rite of Spring & other works for two pianos four hands

Marc-André Hamelin, Leif Ove Andsnes (Hyperion)

An immensely collectable album: a strong candidate for Disc of the Year, never mind of the Month. (David Fanning, February 2018)

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Petrushka & The Firebird

Beatrice Rana (Warner Classics)

There’s no question that Rana is an immensely resourceful pianist who can pull off dazzling effects when warranted. But it is her sane, thoughtful music-making, inerrant in focus, often strikingly original and always from the heart, that sets her apart. Not many 26-year-olds in my experience can boast artistry so satisfyingly complete. (Patrick Rucker, November 2019)

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The Soldier's Tale

Dominique Horwitz, Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov (Harmonia Mundi)

For a full, modern, English Soldier’s Tale, Horwitz and Faust and their colleagues go to the top of the pile alongside the British-music-royalty version led by the late Oliver Knussen. (Peter Quantrill, November 2021)

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Complete Music for Violin & Piano

Anthony Marwood, Thomas Adès (Hyperion)

There are old friends. Three numbers from The Firebird, with a mesmeric Berceuse; the exhilarating Danse Russe from Petrushka stunningly delivered; and a reworked aria from the chamber opera Mavra. The Tango was written in America in 1940 as a pop song but not used and the version here was made by Dushkin. The opening improbably recalls Schubert’s Death and the Maiden and Marwood gets the insidiously erotic inflections of the Trio just right. (Peter Dickinson, March 2010)

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