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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Anthem: The Dove Descending Breaks the Air (1962) [2:56]
Threni: Id est lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae (1958) [30:41]
Requiem Canticles (1965-66) [12:50]
Da Pacem Domine (1957) [3:20]
Christina Landshamer (soprano); Ewa Wolak (alto); Maximilian Schmitt, Magnus Staveland (tenor); Florian Boesch, David Soar (bass)
Collegium Vocale Gent
Royal Flemish Philharmonic/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. 13-15 October 2014, deSingel, Antwerp, Belgium
PHI LPH020 [47:22]

These compelling choral works by Stravinsky date from the last fifteen years of his life and, with the exception of Da Pacem Domine, are cast in a serial style. None have been prolifically recorded, unlike much of his other music, in fact Threni hardly at all. This release from PHI can be welcomed with open arms. It more than compensates for the CD’s rather meagre running time.

Threni: Id est Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae is a setting of verses from the "Book of Lamentations" in the Vulgate translation, scored for one soprano, one contralto, two tenors, two basses, chorus and orchestra. It comprises three sections – De Elegia Prima, De Elegia Tertia and De Elegia Quinta, with the middle section further divided into three. An austere work, it is both ambitious and structurally complex and is the composer’s first completely dodecaphonic work. It was commissioned for the Venice Biennale, where it received its premiere in September 1958.

The performance, clearly well-rehearsed, certainly packs a punch. The chorus delivers its pitchless chant alternating with sung passages with precision. The diction of the choir emerges with crystalline clarity. Herreweghe highlights the richness of the rather pared down score, and all concerned negotiate the intricacies of this complex music with distinction.

In his eighty-fifth year, Stravinsky composed his Requiem Canticles to a commission from a Stanley Seeger in memory of his mother Helen Buchanan Seeger. It received its first performance in 1966. This partial setting of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, incorporates texts from the Proper, specific to the Mass of the Dead, but not including the Ordinary. There are six vocal movements in Latin plus an orchestral prelude, interlude and postlude. Scored for contralto and bass soloists, chorus, and orchestra, its colourful orchestration incorporates xylophone, vibraphone, tubular bells, harp, piano and celesta. At a little under fifteen minutes, it’s hardly surprising that it has been termed "the first mini- or pocket Requiem". It was performed at the composer’s own funeral in 1971. Like Threni it’s an outstanding example of a work from his serial period.

The spiky persistence of the opening Praeludium is captured by Herreweghe in a dramatic and forceful way. The diaphanous quality of Exaudi’s scoring and the luminosity of the choral singing evoke a feeling of otherworldliness. The success of the performance is determined to a large extent by the achievement of clarity of orchestral texture. This comes over no better than in the Tuba mirum which evinces a well-managed interplay between the burnished brass and the bass soloist. The funereal pacing of the Interludium has a true elegiac feel and the woodwind dialogue gives some indication of Stravinsky’s imaginative orchestration. Once again, the choir’s precision in the Libera me seals its success.

The larger canvasses are framed by two short unaccompanied choral works. The first is a setting of T.S. Eliot’s The Dove Descending Breaks the Air, taken from Little Gidding, the last of the Four Quartets. Dating from 1961, it was written for inclusion into the new Cambridge Hymnal. Da Pacem Domine, from three years earlier, is a completion by Stravinsky of an unfinished motet by Carlo Gesualdo. Despite their brevity these pieces are beautifully sung and invested with feeling and character.

The inspirational conducting achieves stylish and idiomatic performances from Collegium Vocale Ghent and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. Herreweghe has harnessed a fine array of soloists, and I would single out for special mention Ewa Wolak and Florian Boesch for their characterful and intuitive contributions to the Requiem Canticles.

In stunning, vivid sound this recording is an amazing achievement and will, I hope, help these lesser known works win over a larger audience. For me, this is one of my listening highlights for 2016, and is a release I will return to often.

Stephen Greenbank



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