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Stravinsky, Les Noces and Haydn, Mass in B flat major (Harmoniemesse): Martina Jankova (soprano), Rinat Shaham (mezzo soprano), Mark Padmore and Timothy Robinson (tenors), John Relyea (baritone), Katia Labeque, Marielle Labeque, Thomas Ades, Lars Vogt (pianos), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, Philharmonie, Berlin, 23 June, 2005 (SM)

Performances of Stravinsky's amazing dance-cantata, "Les Noces", are so rare, attendance should be compulsory for anyone who is at all interested in 20th century music. Even in Stravinsky's kaleidoscopic oeuvre, there's nothing that quite matches the raw energy and extraordinary sound-world of this phenomenal score, a startling account of the preparations for a 19th-century Russian peasants' wedding.


And with a line-up like the one Sir Simon Rattle had assembled for three nights in the Berlin Philharmonic's current season, it was not surprising that all three performances were sold out. Thomas Adès, Lars Vogt and Katia and Marielle Labeque took the four piano parts, Czech soprano Martina Jankova, Israeli mezzo Rinat Shaham, British tenor Timothy Robinson and Canadian baritone John Relyea were the vocal soloists. The six percussionists were from the Berlin Philharmonic and the chorus was Berlin's own "Rundfunkchor" or Radio Choir.

Stravinsky started work on "Svadebka" -- which is subtitled "scenes choregraphiques russes avec chant et musique" -- in 1914, and completed it only 10 years later. During the long gestation period, the composer first scored the piece for a vast 150-strong orchestra, then for a much smaller ensemble of pianola, harmonium and two cymbaloms, only finally settling on the instrumentation we know today in 1921. It is perhaps precisely the unusual combination of voices with both untuned and tuned percussion that makes the work so difficult to pull off in the concert hall. Even if you can lay your hands on four virtuoso pianists up to the daunting demands of Stravinsky's writing -- and willing to play together -- you've still got to find a quartet of singers who can sing in Russian and are able to project over the relentless hammering of four grand pianos for nigh-on 35 minutes. The balance is easier to attain in the studio, so it remains somewhat of a puzzle why there aren't more commercial recordings of "Les Noces" available.

But it was precisely that balance that proved so elusive, even in the excellent acoustics of Berlin's Philharmonie. Not that the four pianists and the six percussionists could be faulted, with their instrumental virtuosity coupled with metronomic precision. The chorus, too, had all the necessary nimble agility. The problem, from where I was seated, lay with the vocal soloists. Jankova, with her clear, light soprano and rapid vibrato, was simply miscast.

There is no doubt she could hit all the notes. But she lacked the vocal power and sweep for some of the parts more vertiginous leaps and was frequently swamped by the pianos. Perhaps if Sir Simon had placed the four singers in front of the instrumentalists instead of behind them, they might have been more audible. But even sitting bang in the middle of the Philharmonie, it was hard to make out any of the words or even which language they were being sung in. With a work such as this, where the very sounds of the words are part of the music and their rhythms an inseparable part of the musical design -- Stravinsky abandoned his own English-language and rejected a French translation of "Svadebka" for those very reasons -- such shortcomings are a big minus.


Tenor Timothy Robinson similarly had to strain to make himself heard, while mezzo Shaham and baritone Relyea fared somewhat better. Relyea, in particular, stood out with a wonderfully Russian-sounding warble, especially when he teamed up with a solo bass from the chorus for the liturgical hymn at the end of the second tableau.


With the exception of Robinson, who was replaced by Mark Padmore, the same vocal team were the soloists in Haydn's glorious "Harmoniemesse" after the interval. But how different they sounded. Jankova came into her own, her slim, angelic soprano blending deliciously with Shaham's shining contralto. Padmore's lithe, sinewy tenor was quite superb, easily matched by Relyea. In a nod to period practice, the Berliners' pared-down strings eschewed any excessive vibrato. But the wind band that gives the mass its name, including Berlin's star flautist Emmanuel Pahud and solo oboist Albrecht Mayer, sounded unashamedly modern in timbre.Sir Simon conducted Haydn's last great mass at a fair lick. While the Baerenreiter score puts the estimated performance time at 55 minutes, my watch clocked in Rattle's reading at just under 50 minutes.


Even so, there was never any sense of haste, just vigorous -- and wonderfully invigorating -- music-making, with Rattle deftly weaving each detail into a tightly-paced, satisfying whole, at least partly making up for the diffuseness of his conducting in “Les Noces”.



Simon Morgan


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)