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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Oedipus Rex (1927, rev. 1948) (1), Symphony of Psalms (1930, rev. 1948) (2)
Jean Desailly (speaker) (1), Ivo Žídek (Oedipus) (1), Věra Soukupová (Jocasta) (1), Karel Berman (Creon) (1), Eduard Haken (Tiresias) (1), Zdeněk Kroupa (Messenger) (1), Antonín Zlesák (Shepherd) (1),
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Ančerl

Recorded in the Rudolfinum Studio, Prague, 17th December 1964 and 22nd-25th January 1965 (1), 7th-8th June 1966 (2)
SUPRAPHON SU 3674-2 211 [73:31]

These recordings won a good many friends for mid-period Stravinsky in their LP form (as well as a Grand Prix du Disque and an Orphée d’Or in the case of Oedipus). They are now brought together to make an ideal coupling of this composer’s two greatest neo-classical choral works. Such criticism as has been directed at the performances has regarded the degree of vibrato habitually practised by Czech singers and wind-players. As far as the chorus and orchestra are concerned, to my ears this creates an impression of passionate fervour which, far from romanticising the music, only adds to the sense of a remote ritual being enacted. However, if you think this could be a problem, hear the first choral entry ( track 1 from 1’ 13") of Oedipus. A clear and spacious recording prevents any muddiness which can result from choral vibrato, and so above all does Ančerl’s careful balancing of the textures.

Of the soloists, Žídek’s ringingly secure Oedipus deserves nothing but praise (track 1 from 4’55”), and the Creon, Messenger and Shepherd are also excellent. There is a slight (only slight) suspicion that Eduard Haken’s vibrato is disguising some not quite perfect intonation, while more reservations may be felt over Vera Soukupová’s Jocasta. Her rich mezzo tones are impressive, but the voice is a bit unwieldy for the job in hand, a fact exacerbated by the degree of scooping between notes she permits herself (track 2 from 1’ 11").

The speaking role uses Cocteau’s original French; for English-speaking listeners this could be a reason for preferring a version with an English spoken text, especially when we get the libretto in the original languages (including Stravinsky’s quaint Latin with Ks replacing Cs to ensure the hard pronunciation he wanted) but without translation.

However these are small points. The real hero of the disc is the conductor, who understands perfectly the sense of ancient, mysterious rites that lies at the root of both works. Stravinsky’s neo-classicism may have seemed a startling departure at the time but today we are more likely to note the consistency with which the composer of The Rite of Spring is present in everything he wrote. It takes time for performers to catch up with composers. When these interpretations appeared their rivals were mostly recordings under conductors of Stravinsky’s own generation who had come to terms with and learnt to conduct a new type of music. Their efforts (I am thinking of Ansermet, for example) can seem a little plodding and cautious compared with younger artists who have taken the music in their stride. So it says a lot for Ančerl’s scrupulous preparation and innate understanding of the music that these performances yield nothing to the many that have followed and are still prime recommendations.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Rob Barnett


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