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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Canticum Sacrum (1956) [29:28]
Agon (1954-57) [23:00]
Requiem Canticles (1971) [15:00]
Stella Doufexis (alto); Christian Elsner (tenor); Rudolf Rosen (baritone)
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Michael Gielen
rec. 14-16 June 2007 and 26-28 February 2004 (Agon), Konzerthaus Freiburg
Experience Classicsonline

Here are three ‘difficult’ late works by Igor Stravinsky. Much has been written on the subject of Stravinsky’s late move towards serialism, but the reasons are as numerous and simple as they are complex and enigmatic. With Schoenberg dead, Stravinsky presumably no longer felt the hot breath of his Hollywood neighbour over his shoulder. A dodecaphonic approach appealed to the rigorous neatness and order which Stravinsky had always applied to his work, his inventiveness was under strain by the 1940s and he needed fresh stimulus. As well as this, he could remain part of the avant-garde in terms of the how he was regarded by the music world which, wanting him preserved as an old and respectable master, responded with shock and horror. Stravinsky was a consummate professional, and would long have been aware of these kinds of compositional techniques. In all probability, while tinkering with the 12-tone palette Stravinsky found he could re-invent himself and still remain true to his personal sound, with surprising ease, as it turned out, though not without some rather dodgy or misunderstood pieces being created along the way.

There are surprising moments and movements of atonal strangeness in these pieces, but recognisable Stravinsky ‘fingerprints’ of instrumental colour and rhythmic integrity always keep things together. Canticum Sacrum is filled with passion as Agon is with wit, and anyone who can cope with ‘Les noces’ will in fact find this a relatively easy ride.

The Canticum Sacrum belongs to the category of pieces in which Stravinsky expressed his return, or desire to return to the Russian Orthodox faith. The work’s dedication to Venice is in part reflected in the structure of the piece, which matches the architecture and floor plan of St. Mark’s Cathedral. The work was performed in this vast Venetian acoustic in 1956, and one can only imagine the nightmare this must have created when trying to get the thing to sound even remotely coherent. In this recording the tricky solos and chamber-music accompanied movements are performed with great aplomb by Rudolf Rosen and Christian Elsner, and of the instruments only the sound of the organ is a little lifeless, though I’ve probably been listening to too many baroque and French instruments of late. Any Stravinsky collector with any sense will already have snapped up the big 22 disc box from Sony, but even with the composer on the conductor’s rostrum the recording in this must-have set is rather constricted, and more grim in tone than the music warrants. This recording was done not long after the premiere, and still sounds rather uncertain and exploratory in places. It has great historical value, but for this work’s glorious unfolding and fascinating labyrinthine structures, Gielen and his team are hard to beat.

Agon is dedicated to George Balanchine, and received its stage premiere with the New York Ballet. It’s score is something of a patchwork of twelve-tone and more ‘conventionally’ constructed tonal movements, moments from which seem to hark back a little to ‘The Rake’s Progress’ or even Milhaud’s ‘Création du Monde’, others showing the way for composers like Tippett. The ‘suite’ nature of the sections and formal nature of some of the set pieces comes from Stravinsky’s use of the kind of stylisation to be found in seventeenth century dance instruction books. Looking for comparison recordings I rooted out a CD I’d had knocking around for years, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Hiroyuki Iwaki on Virgin Classics, but discovered it to be rather lacking in the essential detail required for this work. Stravinsky’s own 1964 recording is of course a classic. Despite some ragged ensemble and uncertain playing here and there this recording is full of zing and pep, and stands on its own for more than merely historical interest. Agon also appears on Michael Tilson Thomas’s ‘Stravinsky in America’ album, and is well played by the London Symphony Orchestra, though not with the agility and refinement of Gielen’s SWR forces. Tilson Thomas has his tympani weigh in with full force for instance, where Gielen asks for a more proportionate contribution to far greater musical effect. The SWR musicians give far more the impression of chamber-music light footedness – surely a plus in a work for ballet. This is by far the most attractive recording I’ve ever heard of this sometimes problematic and certainly virtuosic work.

The last piece in this programme is the Requiem Canticles, Stravinsky’s last major piece. I have to admit to having the Robert Craft conducted/Stravinsky supervised recording firmly imprinted onto my mental hard disc, so deviations from this golden mean are harder to take. I suppose I would have liked Gielen to have been a little more intense and compact in the opening, but the choral sound is marvellous, and the impact of the Dies irae is tremendous. The soloists are excellent, the very secure sounding Rudolf Rosen in the Tuba mirum reflected in Stravinsky’s structural mirror by mezzo-soprano Stella Doufexis in the Rex tremendae. The central Interlude has a knocking, funereal tread which moved me considerably, and that killing wide vibrato in the flutes has thankfully been knocked out of the players in this performance. The ‘crowd scene’ of the Libera me is highly animated and deeply chilling. The only movement which disappoints is the final Postlude, whose chiming bells surely deserve more space in which to develop their resonance. This is a movement which has raised the hairs on my neck since before I had hairs on my neck, and I’m afraid my hackles remained flat as a dab – shame.

Despite my one or two quibbles, which are of a subjective and personal nature, this recording has to be regarded as a triumph. In a truly musical fashion, Michael Gielen seems effortlessly to have warmly embraced these three late masterpieces, rendering them into powerfully expressive classics rather than ‘problem children’. Admittedly, there are other Stravinsky works which create harder tasks in this direction, and Gielen might profitably examine such pieces with a view to dragging them, no doubt kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. Norman Lebrecht has remarked that, despite Stravinsky’s great achievements, he distanced himself from his own pain and passion, describing it in others but concealing it in himself. With the Requiem Canticles the composer kept a kind of elegiac diary, pasting the obituaries of friends and acquaintances into his sketchbook, those who died as he worked on the piece. Whether he was spurring himself on at the end of his own days, moved by the inexorable grind of time and fate or just keeping himself in the mood for writing a requiem, at least we come as close as we are ever likely to in seeing Stravinsky tuning himself as directly as possible into human emotion and transience. This quality of recording, interpretation and performance can be seen as a path to enlightenment when it comes to these kinds of works, and listeners who have shied away from them in the past will do well in discovering them here.

Dominy Clements


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