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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Les Noces (1923) [24:14]
Mass (1948) [17:30]
Cantata (1952) [23:57]
Carolyn Sampson* (soprano), Susan Parry (alto), Vsevolod Grivnov (tenor), Maxim Mikhailov (bass), Jan Kobow (tenor)
RIAS Kammerchor, musikFabrik/Daniel Reuss
rec. 2005, Teldec Studio; Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMG501913 [66:27]

Les Noces (The Wedding), though it was first performed in 1924, really belongs with Stravinsky’s great pre-war ballets of which it is the fourth, last and, in my view, arguably the greatest. It is a danced cantata on the subject of a Russian peasant wedding which draws on actual Russian wedding songs but set in a context which ritualises the social aspects of the wedding: the bride laments the loss of her virginity, ‘not necessarily because of real sorrow ... but because ritualistically she must weep’, said Stravinsky. Similarly, the mothers of bride and groom lament the loss of their children and a chorus of friends calls on God, the Virgin Mary and the saints. After the ceremony, which is not represented, there is the fun of the guests at the party followed by the bedding of the bride and groom. There are soloists and chorus, but the soloists are not identified with individual characters.

Stravinsky started the work in 1914, not long after finishing the Rite of Spring, and despite the war and other concerns finished the basic composition in 1917. There followed a long struggle to orchestrate it. There was a nearly complete draft that year for an orchestra which included a harpsichord and a cimbalom, and another abortive version in 1919. The 1917 one is particularly beautiful; it was recorded by Craft long ago and more recently by Eötvös. But Stravinsky eventually settled on the remarkable combination of four pianos and percussion. This gave the scope to evoke the jangling sound of a real Russian band and also the bell sounds which are so important at the end but in a stylised manner.

The music is mostly fast, rhythmic and irregular with great power and also subtlety. A particular feature is the frequent change between two basic tempi, without speeding up or slowing down. The deliberate harshness of these contrasts underlines the real poignancy of the life-change which a wedding marks, while at the same time conveying a fierce joy, which is both moving and exhilarating. The work demands both speed and absolute precision in its performance. Here Daniel Reuss really comes into his own; his highly disciplined forces produce a thrilling performance. His choice of solo voices is absolutely right, with Carolyn Sampson marvellously incisive at the opening.

In the early 1940s Stravinsky, by then living in Los Angeles, came across some Mozart masses in a shop. He said: ‘As I played through these rococo-operatic sweets-of-sin I knew I had to write a Mass of my own, but a real one’. By this he meant one which could be used liturgically, which meant using the Roman Catholic text rather than the Orthodox one of his own church. The Orthodox do not permit the use of instruments in church music. The mass is accompanied by wind instruments and is deliberately cold and austere. It has the grave beauty which we know from several of his other works, Apollo or the violin concerto for example. I should mention that Stravinsky did specify children’s voices, so a performance such as that by the Westminster Cathedral Choir on Hyperion is more authentic. This is nevertheless a fine performance in its own terms of a work which is all too rarely performed or recorded.

Also rare is the Cantata. In it Stravinsky drew on early English poems from an anthology which W. H. Auden, his librettist for The Rake’s Progress a little earlier, had shown him. I also fancy that he might have heard Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, of 1943. At any rate, like Britten he chose to set the Lyke-wake Dirge and his setting is completely different. In his work it is set for female chorus and is used to frame three other movements, which feature the soloists and a small instrumental ensemble. The mood is intense and withdrawn. It is perhaps a work he wrote to satisfy himself, as he did with Zvezdoliki (The King of the Stars) decades earlier. The central movement, a setting of the old carol Tomorrow shall be my dancing day – also set by Holst – is hermetic and obsessive. In fact, in this work and in this movement in particular Stravinsky is starting to use the canonic method associated with the serialists. Later he was to adopt that method, but the Cantata is tonal. The penultimate movement, Westron Wind, is quite different: it is an anguished and direct setting of a short love poem for the two soloists together and is one of those pieces one cannot hear without one’s heart turning over. Carolyn Sampson is again fine and Jan Kobow’s singing of the demanding central carol is an extraordinary feat of sustained singing with scarcely a break in over ten minutes.

There are other recordings of these works, but not as many as one might expect given their quality. This is a really valuable reissue, and it is a shame that Reuss didn't record more choral Stravinsky as he has such a flair for it. The recording is clear and the sleeve-note interesting and helpful but Harmonia Mundi get a black mark for not including the texts.

Stephen Barber


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