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Schumann Symphonies Rattle


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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Symphony in Three Movements (1945) [22:05]
Symphony of Psalms (1930) [22:33]
Symphony in C (1940) [30:39]
Rundfunkchor Berlin (Psalms)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. concert, 20-22 September 2007, Philharmonie, Berlin.
Latin text with translation into English, French, German.
EMI CLASSICS 2076300 [75:39]
Experience Classicsonline

Sir Simon Rattle has made some notable recordings of the music of Stravinsky, whose pieces also featured strongly in his decade-long ‘Towards the Millennium’ festival in the last few years of his time in Birmingham. One of his earliest recordings was a performance of Le Sacre du Printemps with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and his fine Birmingham recordings of the three great ballets and other works have just been reissued by EMI (see review).
 
It’s good to find him returning to Stravinsky with the Berliner Philharmoniker on this disc that usefully collects three of the composer’s five symphonies. These three works sit well together on disc. Not only are they all products of Stravinsky’s neo-classical period but also there’s also a very strong American thread linking them, which involves three of the USA’s Big Five orchestras – and, more specifically, the golden jubilee seasons of two of them. As is well known, Symphony of Psalms was commissioned, along with what turned out to be several other twentieth-century masterpieces, for the fiftieth anniversary season of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1930/31). However, unlike the other two works on this disc, this piece did not achieve its première in the USA. Serge Koussevitzky was ill and unable to conduct the planned programme and instead a performance a few days later in Brussels under Ansermet became the world première. Symphony in Three Movements was a New York Philharmonic commission and they gave the first performance in 1946. Stephen Walsh seems to imply in his booklet note that Symphony in C was also a New York commission but I’m not sure this is so. In an essay on the work Michael Steinberg states that Mrs. Mildred Bliss (co-commissioner, with her husband, of Dumbarton Oaks) agreed to underwrite the composition after Stravinsky had begun work on it. Eventually, and with her consent, he offered it to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for their fiftieth anniversary season and he conducted them in its first performance in 1940.
 
Rattle begins with Symphony in Three Movements. The first movement starts off powerfully but fairly soon the music is characterised above all by driving, irregular rhythms. Stravinsky’s scoring is often quite dense but Rattle achieves consistent clarity and, as you might expect from him, the rhythms are never slack. The second movement is quite gentle by comparison. In the first movement a piano, with its percussive qualities, had played an important role. Here a harp forms an essential ingredient in the scoring. Unlikely as it may seem, Stravinsky originally conceived this music for a score he proposed to compose for the 1943 film Song of Bernadette, a project that he never realised. Much of the music is relaxed but there’s still quite often pungency in the wind writing (for example between 3:29 and 4:10). In the finale Stravinsky reverts to the blocks of sound and acerbic motor rhythms that characterised much of the first movement. In this section he deploys both piano and harp, the latter shorn of any gentility. The explosive final pages in particular are potently delivered by Rattle and his orchestra.
 
In Symphony of Psalms Rattle seems to relish the spare, pungent orchestral scoring. Once again he’s acutely alive to rhythms. The choir, trained by Simon Halsey, is excellent and contributes excitingly, not least to a tremendously powerful climax in the second movement. The finale, which is the most extended movement, sets Psalm 150, a paean of praise. However, Stravinsky begins the movement surprisingly quietly. The main allegro (from 1:59) crackles excitingly. In his notes Stephen Walsh perceptively relates this section to the words in the Apocrypha: “Divine grace is dancing … ye who dance not know not what we know.” But it’s also relevant to recall that Stravinsky himself said that the allegro was inspired by the image of the prophet Elijah going up to heaven in his fiery chariot. The biting playing of the Berliners and the precision of the choir mean that this whole passage is articulated very well indeed. Given the celebratory text of the psalm one might expect the music to continue in this jubilant vein right through to the end. But Stravinsky is never predictable and as early as 5:25 - in a movement lasting 12:32 in this performance - he eases right back and, as Walsh says, “the dance slows to a ritual sway”, which lasts right through to the end. In Michael Steinberg’s evocative description “the music settles into a different, deeply inward kind of ecstasy, whose musical expression here is all timeless, motionless quiet.” Rattle and his forces are just as successful at realising Stravinsky’s vision here, as they were when the music was all ablaze and brimming with life.
 
Finally we hear Symphony in C. The composition of this work occupied Stravinsky between 1938 and 1940. During some of this time he was distracted by the serious illness of his first wife, Catherine and of their two daughters. His wife and one of his daughters succumbed to their illnesses and, if this were not enough, Stravinsky himself endured a period of ill health. But none of this is apparent to the listener to Symphony in C. Amazingly – and perhaps as a conscious reaction to and release from his troubles – Stravinsky produced a predominantly positive work, very firmly in the neo-classical style, albeit in Stephen Walsh’s memorable phrase, “the key of C major is a highly ambiguous beast which seems to be forever locking horns with E minor.” 
 
The work is much more conventionally scored than the other two works on the disc. Rattle brings energy and an airy feeling to his performance and, yet again, he makes sure the music is rhythmically alive. It’s interesting that Michael Steinberg, in his aforementioned essay on the symphony, states that scores of some Haydn symphonies were often to be found on Stravinsky’s desk while he was writing this particular work. That seems to be quite relevant because I’ve always thought that Haydn is a composer that Rattle conducts well, though I know this isn’t a view that’s universally shared.
 
In the second movement, much of which is like an Italianate song, there’s some fine work by the principal oboe player and the music is played with delicacy and no little finesse by the Berliners. Having said that, they also bring appropriate energy to the more propulsive section (2:58 to 4:29). I like the playful zest in the third movement. The finale opens somewhat mysteriously and Rattle catches the mood well. When the pace of the music picks up (1:31) the strings dig in vigorously and some listeners may feel they’re recorded a bit too closely. From here on the reading buzzes with vitality until, in a masterstroke, Stravinsky slows the music right down for a tranquil ending. In this performance the music glows gently in this section. The quiet wind chords (from 6:52) seem to recall the ‘Laudate’ finale of Symphony of Psalms, the memory made the sharper by the juxtaposition of the two works on the same disc. Sometimes I find Stravinsky’s music a bit forbidding but I enjoyed this account of Symphony in C very much.
 
These are recordings taken from concerts in the Philharmonie. One can’t know how much patching and editing has gone on but the feel of a live performance comes across, though the audience is commendably silent. I’ve read comments in various places to the effect that the recorded sound in some of Rattle’s previous live Berlin recordings has been too close. I must say that in those recordings that I’ve heard I’ve not experienced any problems with the recorded sound, nor have I done on this occasion, with the possible exception of the point I made in the preceding paragraph.
 
This is a very successful collection of three major orchestral works by Stravinsky. There’s considerable logic in having these three works on the same disc and as the performances are uniformly good this makes a desirable package.
 
John Quinn

see also review by Kevin Sutton
      
 

 


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