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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Rossignol (1908-9, 1913-4) [41:30]
Evgeny Akimov (tenor), The Fisherman
Mojca Erdmann (soprano), The Nightingale
Marina Prudenskaya (mezzo-soprano), The Cook
Tuomas Pursio (bass-baritone), The Chamberlain
Fyodor Kuznetsov (bass), The Bonze
Pribaoutki (Chanson plaisantes) (1914) [4:50]
Katrin Wundsam (mezzo-soprano)
Deux Poęmes de Paul Verlaine (1910) [5:45]
Hans Christoph Begemann (baritone)
WDR Rundfunkchor Köln
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Jukka-Pekka Saraste
rec. 2012, Philharmonie, Köln (Rossignol), 2013, Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal WDR, Köln (songs)
Texts and translations not included
ORFEO C919171A [52:05]

Most of Stravinsky gets at least the occasional airing but his little opera Le Rossignol (The Nightingale) is a rare bird indeed. This may be because it is a one-acter, though that hasn’t prevented Oedipus Rex from joining the repertory. Nor do I think it is because Stravinsky changed his style in the course of writing it, of which more anon. No, I think the main problem has been that of staging it: the nightingale is represented by a coloratura soprano, and if you put her on stage you lose the effect and if you put her in the pit there is only a tiny bird representing her part. I have heard it in concert more than once but I have never seen a staged performance or even seen one advertised. The original production with designs by Alexandre Benois was very beautiful; the designs have survived but the sets and costumes were lost in the first World War.

The story is taken from Hans Andersen, whose stories Stravinsky loved as a boy. There are three acts, though they are really scenes as the whole work is so short. In the first act the fisherman sings of the nightingale and the beauty of its song. The nightingale appears but its song is interrupted by a group of courtiers and palace servants with an invitation from the emperor of China. In the second act we find ourselves in the emperor’s palace of porcelain. The nightingale sings and the emperor is moved but prefers a mechanical nightingale, a present from the emperor of Japan. The real nightingale quietly leaves but is banished. The fisherman sings of death. In the third act the emperor is ill and Death enters. The nightingale returns and by singing restores him to health. The fisherman sings of sunrise and birdsong.

The change of style came about because Stravinsky started work on the opera in 1908 while he was still studying with Rimsky-Korsakov but completed only the first Act. It begins like a pastiche of Debussy’s Nuages but soon flowers into the Russian orientalism of his teacher. He laid it aside when Diaghilev came along to commission The Firebird. That was followed by Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, and it was not until 1914 that he was invited to complete the opera, for a very large fee. By then he had moved a long way from Russian orientalism and The Firebird and his idiom had become noticeably drier and harder. Stravinsky revised the first act and completed the work but was aware of the gap in style between the first act and the last two; he later adapted music from the second and third acts alone to form a symphonic poem, The Song of the Nightingale – but this has not really caught on either. However, I agree with the Stravinsky scholar Eric Walter White who said of the original opera that ‘with the passage of time this gap has narrowed and the variations in style now seem to be much less of a flaw than they first appeared.’

The performance here is a good one. Despite the French title, the work was originally set in Russian, which is what we have here (the Russian title is Solovyei). We have a cast which is partly German and partly Russian, with a German orchestra and choir conducted by that indefatigable Finn, Jukka-Pekka Saraste. He proves himself a fine Stravinskian, bringing out the intricate details of the score and finding a good balance between the varying styles of the work. Mojca Erdmann manages the sometimes stratospheric demands of the nightingale role with aplomb and I should also put in a good word for Evgeny Akimov as the fisherman, who is heard at the end of each act.

There are two extra works. Pribaoutki is a short song cycle for voice and a small ensemble. The words are Russian jingles, and the composer was very pleased that the accents of the spoken words are ignored when they are sung. He adopted this principle in his subsequent word settings. Stravinsky intended this for his brother Gury, but he was killed in the first World War and never sang them. Here they are given by the mezzosoprano Katrin Wundsam. She sings very attractively but we should really have had a baritone.
The two poems of Verlaine were also written for Gury, originally for voice and piano. Stravinsky orchestrated them in 1951, which is what we have here, this time correctly sung by a baritone, Hans Christoph Begemann. They sound quite French and are close in feeling to the first act of Le Rossignol. The poems are ‘Un grand sommeil noir, from Verlaine’s collection Sagesse, and ‘La lune blanche,’ from La Bonne Chanson.

The recordings, in different venues for the operas and the songs, have a fine bloom and resonance, and the booklet, in English, French and German, but in a rather cramped format, gives useful information about the works and the performers. I would love to be able to give this an unqualified recommendation. However, as so often, we are let down by the absence of texts and translations. In fact, I followed the opera with the help of the booklet in the Boulez version (Erato 2292-45627-2 or in various large compilations) which provides it in English, French and German – but not the Russian actually used in either performance.

There are a few other contenders for comparison. The afore-mentioned Boulez is from 1992 and has no coupling. James Conlon’s 1999 version on EMI (CDC 7243 5 56874 2 5 – there is also a DVD) has Natalie Dessay as the nightingale, is well thought of and has another rarity, Renard, as coupling. This contains French and English texts but again not Russian. There is a 2005 version by Robert Craft on Naxos, coupled with The Rite of Spring, which contains the complete text in Russian and English (review). The most convenient alternative place to find the two short groups of songs is again a Boulez disc of all the songs (DG 4317512) which also has the texts.

So a qualified recommendation: if you can manage without the texts you will find this a rewarding version.

Stephen Barber



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