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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Oedipus Rex* [52:21]
Les Noces†[24:10]
Edward Fox (speaker)*, Alison Wells (soprano) †, Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)†, Jennifer Lane (mezzo-soprano)*, Martyn Hill (tenor), Joseph Cornwell (tenor)*, David Wilson-Johnson (bass-baritone)*, Andrew Greenan (bass)*, Alan Ewing (basso-profundo) †, Simon Joly Male Chorus*, Simon Joly Chorale†, International Piano Quartet†, Tristan Fry Percussion Ensemble, Philharmonia Orchestra*/Robert Craft
Recorded at Abbey Road Studio One, London, England, on Jan.8th-9th 2001 (Les Noces) and June 2001 (Oedipus Rex)
NAXOS 8.557499 [76:31]
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There is no more authoritative Stravinskian around today than the American, Robert Craft. Indeed, from 1948 until Stravinsky’s death in 1971, Craft was closely allied with the composer, first as assistant, later in a closer, almost filial relationship. This recording forms part of a massive project launched by the MusicMasters label and now taken up by Naxos with the 82 year old Craft: the recording of the complete works of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Webern.

Stylistically, the music on this CD has an authentic ring to it, and Craft sets his tempi with unerringly good judgement – such a vital factor in Stravinsky’s work.

Stravinsky’s instrumentation is often quirky, even eccentric, though it almost always works wonderfully well. But it does need a conductor with an excellent ear for balance, and here Craft again succeeds admirably. The solo voices are projected without difficulty, but with a most natural sounding recording perspective. In Oedipus, the sensitivity of the Philharmonia players is very much in evidence, as is the excellent work of the men of Simon Joly’s chorus. This is demanding stuff for the male chorus, for they have to sing at times with great delicacy, at others with the roughness of football hooligans! The soloists are mostly more than capable, particular praise going to Martyn Hill in his passionate portrayal of the ‘title rôle’. Only Joseph Cornwell seems less than comfortable in the small but vital part of the Shepherd, sounding as if the part lies a little too high for him. The part of the Narrator is superbly delivered by Edward Fox; though his approach is restrained and understated, he manages to fill the text where necessary with a sense of ominous dread.

Les Noces is equally successful, possibly even more so. This is one of the truly seminal works of 20th century music, whose massive influence on later composers is belied by its relatively small size. The sense of ceremony, of ritual, the use of raw folk idioms and the clangorous percussion effects all made an immense impression on composers all the way from Orff in Carmina Burana to Bernstein in Chichester Psalms. It was a great achievement to produce such an idiomatic performance with a group of non-Russian singers. It’s not just the fluent pronunciation of the language (no mean task in music of such speed and rhythmic complexity); the voices themselves have been chosen for their earthy quality, just right for the piece. This applies most of all to the Simon Joly Chorale, who take the lead in what is essentially an ensemble piece, and sing with great style and vigour.

An enormously enjoyable and, for all admirers of this central figure of 20th century music, indispensable addition to the Stravinsky discography.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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