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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Three Russian Sacred Choruses (1926-34) [4:45]
Mass (1944-48) [17:09]
Cantata (1951-52)* [23:46]
Babel (1944) [4:57]
Symphony of Psalms (1930, rev.1948) [22:25]
The Gregg Smith Singers (Choruses, Mass, Cantata)
Simon Joly Chorale (Symphony)
Mary Ann Hart (soprano), Thomas Bogdon (tenor)*
Orchestra of St. Lukes (Mass)
Philharmonia Orchestra (Symphony)
Robert Craft (conductor)
rec. SUNY, Purchase, NY, 1992 (Choruses), 1995 (Mass, Cantata), 27 March 2002 (Babel) and 5-6 January 2001, Abbey Road Studio No.1, London (Symphony)
NAXOS 8.557504 [73:03]

This is volume 6 of the ‘Robert Craft Collection’, and one which will justifiably be snapped up by all fans and collectors of this excellent edition. Naxos projects of this nature more often than not go beyond just clever marketing these days, bringing us gently through musically verdant  but thoroughly completist paths, the fruits of which bear lesser-known works which are placed alongside core repertoire to tempt the casual buyer. Compared with the 1991 Sony ‘Igor Stravinsky Edition’ in which all of his sometimes hard to digest sacred works were dumped together in one box, Naxos offer the prize of the Symphony of Psalms as a reward for surviving some of these less overtly popular but ultimately rather appealing other choral works.
The opening choruses are a capella works which use Slavonic texts, and were intended for use in the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church, which forbids the use of musical instruments. All of them have a compact and deceptively simple character, a little like Poulenc’s ‘Motets’, using chant and antique modes to carry the traditional texts. Like the recordings Stravinsky conducted in the mid 1960s, the singers are quite closely miked, but with impeccable intonation there is no cause for concern. Craft is considerably brisker than Stravinsky himself, gaining a little in raw energy and accuracy of ensemble where the earlier recordings have a little more dynamic variety.
These little gems are beautifully sung, and the high standard of the Gregg Smith Singers carries on into the Mass almost unscathed. It is of course a deeply ingrained part of this group’s repertoire, their 1960 incarnation having also recorded this work with Stravinsky. This earlier recording is of course an important source. While Craft has the benefit of better tuned bass notes in the opening of the Kyrie there is in fact little to choose between the two versions – the timings are fairly similar for one thing. The new recording is however smoother, Stravinsky’s own possessing a different kind of restrained eloquence. On average, Craft’s soloists are easier on the ear, his winds warmer and a touch more accurate. Stravinsky plays more with the internal dynamics of the music, drawing a more personal and moving character from this, one of his most personal statements. There are some grimly out of tune entries in the historic recording however, and Craft’s beautifully disciplined forces win in the end – certainly for repeated listening.
Unlike the previous two works, the Cantata is in fact secular. Referring once again to Stravinsky’s 1965-6 recording one is immediately struck by the close microphone placements of the earlier version - it’s as if singers and musicians are sitting or standing right in front of you, which is an interesting, if not entirely comfortable experience. Craft’s forces are placed more realistically, at a respectful distance from the listener, and with a pleasant halo of resonance provide acoustic glue. Mary Ann Hart’s solo is entirely clear, and suits the setting nicely, blending or rising above the cool instrumental textures in a natural and unforced fashion. I compared this new recording to Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the London Sinfonietta and L.S. Chorus (Sony 1991). Female soloist on this recording is Yvonne Kenny, whose singing I have admired for many years. Salonen is brisker in tempi in the Ricercar movements, so that the solo lines become more declamatory. He is slower in the Lyke-Wake Dirge movements, and the character of his performance does seem to relate more to The Rake’s Progress, to which this piece was a kind of continuation – Stravinsky having a strong urge to use another English language text after completing his only opera, this time without the dramatic context. Craft’s soloists have a softer-voiced character, and the whole thing is less pungent by comparison, emphasising the lyrical nature of the music and making it milder and easier to swallow – its 24 cyclical minutes being a fairly long ‘sit’ by comparison with some of Stravinsky’s other works. This is not to say that the performance is without drama, and the penultimate Westron Wind movement is as urgent as one could wish.
The cantata Babel was composed as one part of a seven-work cycle by different composers, commissioned by Nathaniel Shilkret, himself a composer. The spoken text is taken very well by David Wilson-Johnson, more overtly dramatic than John Calicos, the narrator on Stravinsky’s 1962 Toronto recording, but never overly histrionic. The orchestra is on top form and the choral entries are stunning, promising great things for the Symphony of Psalms.
Expectations have to be high for Robert Craft’s Symphony of Psalms, and to a great extent they are realised. Taking Stravinsky as comparison once again (the CBC Symphony Orchestra on Columbia-Sony) it is hardly surprising that Craft employs similar tempi. I rummaged around and forked out my Lorin Maazel/Bayerischen Rundfunks recording (RCA 1998) in order to escape the grip of the Stravinsky/Craft axis, and here you can hear how swifter, less indulgent tempi can also work well – Stravinsky was after all an elderly man when he made his recording. Maazel shaves a good 30 seconds from the first movement, which in a 3 minute piece is quite a hefty shift in proportion. I have a feeling that Craft’s tempi would work beautifully in an acoustic with just a little more elbow-room. Abbey Road Studio I is a grand venue, but doesn’t ‘expand’ in quite the way Craft’s approach would seem to demand. I seem to remember Tilson Thomas’s LSO recording on Sony also having been done there, and I ditched that version many moons ago. Stiffer competition comes with one-time BBC Radio 3 top ‘Building a Library’ choice, one from 1964 with the Czech Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Karel Ančerl on Supraphon. While the oboes seem to have vibrato on top of their vibrato this recording does have maximum dramatic impact, cracking playing and singing in general, and almost entirely convincing pacing. Ančerl’s first two movements are swifter, and he saves the timeless until the end, lingering over the last Laudate Deo to beyond slowness and as a result coming in 24 seconds over Craft in the finale.  
Doubts concerning Psalms v. Abbey Road aside the singing and playing is top notch, and if you know and love the elderly Stravinsky Columbia recording then you will love this new one. Craft allows the music to speak for itself, much as Stravinsky does, giving the players room to phrase and perform expressively, but never over-pitching the solo lines and spoiling the balance – which is no mean feat in the Symphony of Psalms. The arching form of the second movement is superbly sustained, its 7 minutes seeming like a gorgeous eternity which continues into the final Psalm 150. The finale builds well, but there are one or two moments when you might have wished for just a little more forward motion. Craft’s slowness is true to the proportions of the interpretation as a whole, but with the preponderance of low instruments (the score contains no upper strings) you have to accept Craft’s vision completely or sometimes find yourself struggling to advance inside a deep-sea diver’s suit. With the beginning of the final, timeless Laudate Craft seems entirely vindicated however – the religious ecstasy being complete, as we are transported up that never-ending staircase to heaven.
There is no doubt about it, on previous experience and current evidence, Naxos’ Robert Craft Collection will ultimately stand alongside Stravinsky’s own ‘complete’ edition, enhancing, complimenting and often improving on it as it goes – to ignore it would seem to defy all reason.
Dominy Clements   


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