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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Oedipus Rex - opera-oratorio in two acts (1927) [57:09]
Symphony of Wind Instruments (1920, rev 1947) [9:04]
Peter Pears (tenor); Martha Modl (soprano); Heinz Rehfuss (bass-baritone); Otto von Rohr (bass); Helmut Krebs (tenor); Werner Hessenland (narrator) (Rex)
North-West German Radio Cologne Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky
rec. 8 October 1951, Cologne. Mono. ADD
ARCHIPEL ARPCD0228 [59:67]



As I have written in other reviews, music with a narrator can be a minefield but this doesn’t apply to Oedipus Rex (1927). It uses a text by Cocteau but set in the Sophocles Latin translation from the Oedipus trilogy.
 
The narration problem only occurs if one happens to lack the language skills required by the various versions. I fall into this category so had no choice other than to concentrate on the music. Ignorance isn’t quite bliss and of course anyone can make a shift to another important lingo with a translation. Sadly this CD lacks even that feature and in its remarkably scrappy notes scores 0 out of 10.
 
Cocteau’s narrative in French has some fine blank verse balance. I have an extremely rare tape of Cocteau in late life with Stravinsky conducting. At some stage others might be able to comment on this version for general enlightenment. It’s stored in England and I am in Ireland.
 
In this review I intend to avoid detailed analytical comparisons of the work on record/CD with an American narrator, including the composer’s own. I merely comment that Prof Higgins was right, although Paul Newman does make a good fist of it in his version with Craft and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s on Music Masters. That CD is well worth a hearing.
 
Sir Ralph Richardson with Colin Davis on a Philips resurrection is a bit declamatory in an otherwise excellent musical performance with Remedios and the RPO in top form. Edward Fox in the Naxos Craft version sounds as if he had a late night or was in the role of Edward VIII’s abdication speech. This totally ruins a superb performance under the baton of a direct link with Stravinsky. Robert Craft was a protégé and assistant to the composer. Definitely an example of the need to re-dub.
 
The best reason for buying this Archipel CD, with narration in German and delivered subtly by Werner Hessenland, is down to the authenticity of what Stravinsky intended in his Opera-Oratorio. Part and parcel of this is the dry acoustic the composer favoured when recording the CBS series with Craft as assistant in the 1960s.
 
It is worth mentioning that the composer’s famous falling out with CBS over their schedule resulted in many of the best recordings being achieved in Canada. Stravinsky wanted the purity of voices he heard there. He was also suspicious of the CBS producers.
 
After the CBS-Sony merger the old man was proved to have been right as the putative ‘complete edition’ had never been complete by a long chalk. The company disappointed the composer and, it seems, held back some recordings altogether. Readers will note various omissions and restrictions if they recall what Stravinsky actually recorded in late life. Where for example is In Memoriam Dylan Thomas a major work setting ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’; late Stravinsky at his best? No doubt there are other examples.
 
Soap-box away after point made. Back to the CD under review. The dry acoustic the composer loved was perhaps all there was in 1951 Cologne but it’s the making of this recording which I suggest is definitive in execution by all the musicians performing it.
 
The idea of combined opera-oratorio could only have come from a great genius. Setting a Greek tragedy in the static way of Sophoclean times but getting inside the presented characters in an operatic, personal way must have seemed doomed to failure. Not so; Cocteau’s rather stiff Narrator role (in French) was enough to show to the audience in 1927 that they had to witness the work out of time and perhaps judge later.
 
This release has a superbly balanced cast which I have not heard in any other recording. Peter Pears as Oedipus had a thicker voice in 1951 than in the majority of his Decca recordings with Britten. What annoys some people about his voice might be absent here. Langridge springs to mind hearing Pears in this amazing issue. Pears is best heard in Track 9 when Oedipus takes up a note from Tiresius (Otto von Rohr, baritone) better than any. At this point the drama is on the turn as king Oedipus meets the reality of being mortal, faulty, sinful and doomed by Fate – the exact definition of ‘tragedy’ in Classical terms.
 
From Track 7 we know for sure that things are going wrong for Oedipus. This isn’t all that clear in any other commercial recording I know. Stravinsky’s spare orchestration and depressing harmonies are interpreted here by the composer so mercilessly that anyone could pick up the plot even without a text.
 
Track 8 for chorus is perfect as Stravinsky achieves a subdued quality in the chorus singing about Minerva. The snake-like woodwind writing has more to do with Medusa. In this movement of just under two minutes we know that a mere human cannot stand against the Fates. The sober, tonal entry of Tiresius on Track 9 is genius because Oedipus’s music of fear takes up the crucial clashing wind undertones of 8 despite the king’s noble attempts to sound heroic. Peter Pears gets this spot-on and anyone (like our Editor) who is allergic to Pears’ voice ought to listen to this.
 
The conclusion of Track 9 and the transition into Track 10 is paced so perfectly that the celebration of king Oedipus in the ‘Gloria’ is undermined by harmonies sown earlier and by parodies of Oedipus phrases from Track 6 as the hero-victim suspects that something is going wrong.
 
Stravinsky in this 1951 recording makes full sense of the strange notion of an ‘opera-oratorio’ immediately after the ‘Gloria’ when Jocasta (Martha Modl) sings operatic passages. The orchestra parts are at odds with the pastiche grand opera lines so the whole of the longest movement Track 12 [9’29] really needs a great singer like Modl. Her romantic lines become uneasy as she realises the trap she and Oedipus are in but he fails to grasp the enormity (used correctly) of his inadvertent sins.
 
By Track 15 Oedipus, informed by the Shepherd (Helmut Krebs) and the Messenger (Heinz Rehfuss), utters “LUX FACTA EST”.
 
Well, killing one’s father and marrying one’s mother covers a fair few sins by any standards. In Track 16 the narrator tells how Jocasta hangs herself and how Oedipus blinds himself with the pin of her gold brooch.
 
The final Track 17 with chorus and the Messenger is very dark but with pity too as the king is driven into exile by the public, blind, shamed and insane. Stravinsky does better than any other conductor in pacing this with Sophoclean dignity and thus the great work ends in a muted way.
 
Served by top soloists of their time, a very tight orchestra and a chorus with only a few scrappy bits as well as a dry acoustic Stravinsky must have enjoyed himself no end. He probably rehearsed in his picky way and recorded both these pieces on the same day of 8 October 1951.
 
Symphony of Wind Instruments is also masterly under the composer but choose your own name for the 1920 work (rev 1947) as it changed a few times – the point being that ‘symphony’ meant ‘playing together’ rather than the post-C.P.E. Bach and Boyce usage in Stravinsky’s neo-classical phase.
 
Back in the 1970s I favoured Czech versions of Stravinsky’s and Hindemith’s neo-classical chamber works on Supraphon. They were ‘dry’ while offerings from the UK and USA used unnecessary resonance.
 
This version by the composer himself in Cologne is surely the reference standard. It offers superb texture so that we hear every harmonic resonance - the bassoon sounds are just plain sexy. There’s no fuss in this extremely complex but disciplined structure of just over 9 minutes. Some other versions take nearly 10 minutes.
 
Stravinsky demonstrates here what he wanted to prove and that, I suggest, is what musical instruments sound like when played superbly. This is not just an object lesson so much as a beautiful jewel of music for all time.
 
In these days of muzak, MP3 compression and computer showing-off, it’s great to recommend a CD which sounds realistic to those of us who still attend live concerts when we can.
 
Recorded in 1951, in mono, with no texts, translations or even a full list of engineers, producers and the suffocating info we now tend to get, this remarkable release is pure music. The fact that both great works are carried off to the best in my experience is decisive.
 
The 24-bit re-master rate for CD means that to get a full range of sound needs a good audio set-up with decent speakers or ‘cans’ but mainly a good DAC such as a Benchmark, Beresford or something more up-market if one has it.
 
There are touches of pre-echo in Tracks 1 to 8 but for a definitive version of a truly great work I can live with that.
 
This Archipel release of genius at work is remarkable with the right gear and is a sheer pressure-cooker of drama linking a millennium showing that humans are frail no matter how great they become in repute at a given time.
 
Stravinsky’s own humanity joins with that of Sophocles (Track 17) when the chorus comments on the departure of Oedipus with pomp, some blame and then the supreme regret. This allows the composer to conclude this essential recording with quiet depth on cellos and basses. It’s heartbreaking stuff and great in every sense.
 
Stephen Hall
 



 


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