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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) Perséphone
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935) Overture Polyeucte
Paul Groves (tenor); Nicole Tibbels (speaker)
Cantate Youth Choir; Trinity Boys’ Choir
BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Andrew Davis (Stravinsky) and Jan Pascal Tortelier (Dukas)
Recorded in the Royal Albert Hall (live) August 10th 2003
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61548-2 [73:34]

This CD comes as one of a series issued by Warner Classics in conjunction with the BBC. It demonstrates some of the finest highlights from the 2003 Proms season. I am thrilled that they have chosen this particular concert. I remember hearing it whilst sitting on a Dorset balcony last August and thinking what a fine but curiously rare work ‘Perséphone’ is ... and what a beautiful one. What came across then, even on my clapped-out transistor, comes across even more strongly here: what a superb performance and vivid recording. We should be especially grateful to and delighted at Warners and the BBC giving us the opportunity to revisit the concert.

I cannot stress too highly that these are excellent performances of rare works. They are just the kind of thing that the Proms does best. The children’s choirs are especially superb and wonderfully drilled. The live recording is not spoiled in the least by audience noise and their only noticeable contribution is some ideally positioned applause at the end of each work.

Stravinsky described Perséphone as a ‘Melodrama in three scenes for tenor, mixed chorus, children’s choir and orchestra’. The part of Perséphone is taken throughout by a female speaker. The somewhat oblique and slightly philosophical text was by André Gide, who so disapproved of some aspects of Stravinsky’s setting that he failed to come to the rehearsals or the first performance. This took place in Paris in April 1934.

Gide’s poem, which had been written before the First War, is based on the Homeric hymn to Demeter which has, as a climax, Persephone’s descent into the underworld. There she becomes Pluto’s bride. While there she becomes desperate to return to earth where her mother mourns her. It is her destiny to reign over the underworld as Pluto reminds her in scene 2. It is winter and spring is eagerly awaited. Persephone has the power to bring that season back to earth when she marries.

The score is divided into several solos for Eumpolpus (tenor) who acts as a kind of spirit guide for the listeners. Chorus numbers sometimes combine with the tenor. There are also orchestral interludes and verbal interjections by Persephone.

The music is typical mid-period Stravinsky. It brings to mind especially the ‘Symphony in C’ (1939). The vocal writing of the opening scene is quite balletic and I was reminded of Apollon Musagètes (1928). Some of the stronger rhythmical moments in the chorus conjure up a kind of secular ’Symphony of Psalms’ (1930). The beautiful choral writing near the beginning of scene 2 is like nothing I have ever heard in Stravinsky. Its melodic charm seems set in another world, which indeed it is as Persephone lies asleep beside the banks of the Lethe.

One might call this piece the antithesis of ‘Sacre du Printemps’ which also deals with the moment that winter becomes spring. This topic is explored more thoroughly in the insert notes. The work remains a curious hybrid which is best thought of in Stravinsky’s own words "a masque or dance pantomime".

The Dukas symphonic poem, dated 1892, is based on the story of an early Christian martyr, daughter of the Roman Governor Armenia who has to implement anti-Christian policies. This conflict creates a tense and dark score. It is an early work; indeed it seems more reminiscent of Vincent d’Indy and of César Franck who was Dukas’ teacher. Yet there are some typical finger-prints. I was reminded of the next step in the composer’s development, the Symphony (1896) especially the slow movement which is only a touch more ‘impressionist’. The way in which the themes are repeated and developed in such an ingenious, rather Wagnerian manner is a reminder of Dukas’ greatest work: ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’.

Full texts in French with a fine English and German translation are given. There are also performer biographies as well as a helpful and detailed essay which I suspect formed the original programme notes. These are by David Nice on the Stravinsky and by Adrian Jack on the Dukas.

Highly recommended.

Gary Higginson

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