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CD & Download: Pristine Classical

Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Perséphone (1933-1934)
Vera Zorina (narrator), Richard Robinson (tenor)
The Westminster Choir
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky
rec. 14 January 1957, Columbia 30th Street Studios, New York City

Experience Classicsonline

This 1957 recording of Perséphone pre-dates that which appears as part of the big Sony box set which all Stravinsky fans should have to hand as a reference (see review). The later version is a little more expansive, with timings for the outer movements about 1 minute longer each, though the NYPO sounds by no means hurried in comparison. As usual from Pristine Audio, the notes for this release are candid about the source for this CD transfer, which is an XR re-mastering by Andrew Rose from a copy of the original CBS Masterworks LP, ML 5196. This sounds very good indeed, though as the notes point out, “one can only curse Columbia for their non-adoption of stereo at this stage in the 1950s!” On its own terms this mono aspect of the recording is in fact fairly negligible, such is the quality of balance between soloists, chorus and orchestra. The later NYPO recording does have greater clarity in stereo and more definition in the treble, which may or may not be a side effect of hiss reduction for this LP transfer. As a result, the harp can sound a bit tubby and the winds and general sonic picture a bit on the dull side, a little like being in an over-heated room with too much carpet by comparison. One feels there is a spectrum of upper harmonics which is missing a bit of ‘zing’, but the commentary indicates analysis of the sound which is comparable with that of Kent Nagano with the London Symphony Orchestra (see review), and a transfer which is “exceptionally faithful to the original,” and in general the sound quality is fine taken on its own terms.
All technical commentary aside, this is a very good, indeed a classic performance of Perséphone, though the actual results are in my view not quite the equal of Stravinsky’s 1966 version. Both recordings share an equally in-form Vera Zorina as narrator, and the all important tenor role is given superbly by Richard Robinson. His voice is a little warmer than Michele Molese in the later recording, but both have the measure of this demanding part. Robinson’s diction is a little easier to follow, though he is closer in terms of balance than Molese, who in turn is perhaps marginally more authoritative. Where the 1957 recording is less convincing is in the choir, the females of which can at times be rather over-wobbly, the gents also rather lacking in cohesive unity. The Westminster Choir is by no means bad and certainly have plenty of rhythmic verve, but the Gregg Smith Singers et al just seem that much more cleaner and on the ball in stylistic terms. The Columbia SO is also better, evidenced in this NYP recording by note-seeking strings here and there, and the somewhat meandering and stodgy opening to the third and final movement. Neither band is entirely perfect, but the New York Phil sounds very B-movie at this point, where the Columbia SO creates genuine atmosphere and tension - helped, it has to be said, by their more modern sound quality.
With an LP transfer lacking in surface noise or discernable distortion this remains a fine achievement by the Pristine Audio team. Perséphone is one of those pieces which never seems to have taken off in quite the same way as some of Stravinsky’s other works, though it is by no means unapproachable, and in fact contains writing as expressive as most of Stravinsky’s more elegiac pieces. Perhaps the word ‘melodrama’ puts people off, and the hybrid nature of the piece as part-ballet, which makes the work hard to categorise. With this as the only current way to obtain this genuinely worthwhile version of Perséphone; one which appears otherwise long to have languished in obscurity, this release gets a seal of approval from me, despite its being trumped in absolute terms by the version in that big Sony box.
Dominy Clements







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