It’s with a touch of distaste I include in this volume a musician who told the poet Paul Valéry he’d gladly give up the whole of Wagner’s Ring for the theme song from Fox Movietone News. Stravinsky (uncoiled at the right by Jean Cocteau) probably meant it too. Luckily for us, Stravinsky with his disdain for chestnuts, warhorses and some wonderful symphonic perennials had scant intention of forcing his prejudices down the public’s cowering ears, basically he conducted only Stravinsky, although he liked to trot out an attractive all-Russian program packaging the healthy folklore of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony and Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla overture with a post-intermission selection of his own works. When I was a kid this springy gnome from Sunset Boulevard (well, he lived just a crotchet’s-throw above that bustling rue) used to come up to San Francisco frequently to conduct his old colleague Pierre Monteux’ orchestra, rushing to the podium (he was about 60 then) and if I remember right almost leaping thereon. The Tchaikovsky Second was programmed at least once, and the performance must have sounded something like the New York Philharmonic broadcast of 1-7-40, a taut and reasonably affectionate performance in which the music’s carnivalesque passages and whirling brio — Stravinsky seems to have been born with calliopes in mind — are especially to the taste of its ever-dry pilot.

In his ghost-written autobiography Stravinsky claimed that music itself is “by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc . . .”, which, if true, would mean that the book in your hands could not have been written and our souls would be out to lunch. But as commentators like Stravinsky’s witty biographer Stephen Walsh, the respected critic Michael Steinberg and the author of these lines delight in pointing out, even Stravinsky couldn’t get full mileage out of his anti-expression stance and his conducting of his own music has been known, more than once, to depart from the letter of his scores, and, especially in the case of Cleveland and Toronto versions of the Symphony in C, 1952 and 1962 respectively, he has followed one interpretation with quite a different one.

It’s ironic that Stravinsky’s most novelistic music, the Firebird for instance, he tends in his fondness for cool, cackly, combative musicmaking, glancing orchestral blows, that old staccato edge, to drain of mystery and mood, emerging with something more akin to a Pop Art painting than the Impressionist canvas that seems the metaphoric equivalent of this heady stuff. It’s exhilarating to watch the little ancient figure, cane on lectern, hand on hip, bouncing cues off the New Philharmonia in a 9-14-65 video of Firebird, but turn off the picture and the suavity-starved introduction (“Prince Ivan wanders in a dark, enchanted forest,” says the ballet synopsis) sounds BONK BONK LABORIOUS in its depiction of the story’s fairy tale murk — depends, I suppose, on your definition of enchanted. The prevailing sound of the gorgeous Philharmonia in this performance is the gravelly shimmer more to Stravinsky’s taste. Obviously he’ll leave the felicitous “lullaby-ing” of the Princesses’ Round Dance to Leopold Stokowski and his ilk.

For me, this perhaps dangerously unrepentant Stokowskian, the match between score and performer is better, say, in Stravinsky’s conducting of his Fairy’s Kiss divertimento 1-11-47, on a Philadelphia Orchestra broadcast. In a word, this breezy, leaping performance of a loonily lyrical score, one of his most endearing, just works.By the way, that distinguished conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, a man not given to ill temper, played viola under Stravinsky as a young man and thought his conducting just awful . . .