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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Flood (1961) [21:17]
Abraham and Isaac (1962) [11:18]
Variations (1963) [5:04]
Requiem Canticles (1965) [14:27]
Charles WUORINEN (b. 1938)
A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky (1974) [17:12]
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)
Peter Hall (tenor)
Stephen Richardson (tenor)
Susan Bickley (soprano) London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen
rec. London, 1994.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 447-068-2 [69:18]


This is the ArkivCD reissue of the original DG recording first available in 1995. The review copy did not come with the original booklet although these will gradually be made available starting with new issues. Further details will become available on the Arkiv website. I feel it is unnecessary for the website to include details like “20th century” or where pieces are written. Each Schubert song, we are told was written in Austria! This is mindless database padding, not real knowledge and it’s not useful. It would serve better if they gave the basic whys and hows. I hope Arkiv will revamp its site.

The Flood was originally written for television, and indeed, filmed versions of it do exist. It’s loosely based on medieval mystery plays, which gives the vocal parts faux naïf didacticism. Britten developed a similar idea in his Noyes Fludde, some seven years before. This simplicity works well with the formal twelve-tone row structure of the orchestration. Some very interesting musical ideas are going on in the background. While most people will just love the high-blown Shakespearean delivery of the vocal parts in this performance, I think it mars the piece - it detracts from the music. Mystery plays worked because the players sincerely believed in their meaning. Here, the black and white formalism goes against emotional content. Stravinsky said he called the piece The Flood instead of, say, Noah, because he was writing of “The Eternal Catastrophe …. the Flood is also The Bomb”. He downplayed the human drama, calling Noah “a sideshow curiosity”. Perhaps this is why The Flood hasn’t attracted as much attention as other Stravinsky works. Rite of Spring this isn’t, despite the claims to ancient portent. There are only three recordings that I know of, one of which is conducted by Robert Craft who was instrumental in choosing the texts. 

In Abraham and Isaac, Stravinsky is again exploring tone rows, the music ascending and descending in interesting cadences. Here the vocal line carries the structure rather well, single instruments in the orchestration acting to expand details in the singing. It also vaguely recalls Hebrew chant, which is itself cadential, but carries emotional charge. In his final work for orchestra, Variations, from 1963-4, Stravinsky dispenses altogether with the need for voice. Perhaps as a result, his writing seems freer and fresher as he plays with purely musical ideas. 

The best parts of this recording are the Requiem Canticles, completed in 1966. Here, Stravinsky has developed serialism in a distinctively personal way. In the Prelude, the strings capture an exciting tension which evaporates into exquisitely lustrous choral singing. The words “Exaudi, Exaudi” alert you to the detailed structure of the movement. The Dies Irae is similarly alert and sharply focused, the choral singing strikingly precise. A particularly bright trumpet fanfare introduces the baritone. David Wilson- Johnson sings of the “trumpets’ astonishing sound, which sparkles …” and here it most certainly does. After an introspective Interlude, the choir returns, before Susan Bickley enters, plaintively shaping the long, keening lines in the Lachrymosa. But the high point of the piece is the Libera Me with its combination of spoken word and song, performed in interesting cross-currents. Like the tolling of bells with which the piece concludes, the words “Libera Me” peal over and over in different formations. Knussen and the Sinfonietta are new music specialists. Twelve-tone rows hold no mystery for them. Indeed, it is the clarity and precision of this performance that lets the beauty of Stravinsky’s writing shine through. It’s also very emotionally focused, as befits a requiem written by a master who understood that a Requiem has meaning, and isn’t just form. 

It’s altogether fitting that this piece is followed by Charles Wuorinen’s Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky, for Wuorinen continues the mood of late Stravinsky and develops the ideas further. Wuorinen built his piece from a fragment from Stravinsky’s notes, developing variations on it, much in the liberal way Stravinsky had written the Variations heard earlier on this disc; thus, “reliquary”, a relic embellished with reverence. This is the classic account of the work, a milestone in Knussen and the Sinfonietta’s repertoire. Indeed, it was chosen as one of the first releases on the Sinfonietta’s own label. It has been reviewed earlier on Musicweb, by Glyn Pursglove and by myself. 

The performance is exactly the same. The main difference between the discs is the pairings, which in both cases are well chosen.

Anne Ozorio


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