In the last blog entry I wrote about the great ballet Petrushka by Stravinsky. On the recording I recommended is another ballet by Stravinsky, Pulcinella but to write about the two ballets together would have been too much for one blog entry. So this week it is Pulcinella. No two works of Stravinsky's sound alike and this is very apparent when you listen to these two wonderful ballets.
The great ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev wanted to commission Stravinsky to compose a ballet based on an early eighteenth century Commedia dell'arte. The libretto and music of the version he chose was at the time thought to be by the early Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-1736). At first Stravinsky was horrified and did not like the idea but once he had studied the manuscript he changed his mind. He re-wrote the music in a much more modern way and interestingly for a ballet it is scored for a modern chamber orchestra, soprano, tenor and baritone soloists.
Commedia dell'arte was a form of theatre where the performers were masked. The performances were given by travelling troupes who for the most part improvised, often miming. It is from these groups that characters such as Punch and Judy appeared. Pulcinella was the traditional hero of the Neapolitan Commedia dell'arte.
Pulcinella was premiered on 15th May 1920 by Ballet Russes at the Paris Opera and was a huge success, the original costumes and sets were designed by Pablo Picasso. The ballet was a triumph "one of those triumphs", reported the composer, "where everything harmonises, where all the elements - subject, music, dancing and artistic setting - form a coherent and homogenous whole". However only the music survives, Picasso's backdrop ended up in storage where it faded irrevocably, only the moon survived!
As before, the recording I recommend is by the Dutch orchestra the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and here it is conducted by Riccardo Chailly. I particularly like this recording not least because of it's excellence but it also contains these two fabulous ballets Pulcinella and Petrushka.
Watch an excerpt of Pulcinella on YouTube