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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Perséphone (1934)
Andrew Staples (tenor)
Pauline Cheviller (speaker)
Finnish National Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. live, 11 August 2017, Finnish National Opera, Helsinki
Reviewed in CD stereo
PENTATONE SACD PTC5186688 [51:03]

Stravinsky had a recurring interest in themes from the ancient world, and in common with his Orpheus and Apollo, his treatment of Perséphone brought out the more lyrical side of his nature. Indeed, it is a radiant lyricism. While this is not one of Stravinsky's best-known compositions, it remains a high point among his works, with a very special character. The commission to compose it came from that remarkable artist, the dancer and actress Ida Rubinstein, for whom he had written The Fairy's Kiss six years earlier (and for whom Ravel composed his Boléro that same year).

The reasons that Perséphone has remained relatively little known are not hard to understand. To begin with Stravinsky and his librettist André Gide did not get on, and the composer accused his collaborator of 'a complete absence of rapport, which obviously originated in your attitude'. Then the first performance, on 30th April 1934 in Paris, at which Rubinstein both danced and narrated the title role, was not well received. This failure may well link with a third issue: the score requires an unusual and demanding array of forces, making rehearsal scheduling difficult, and it is a curious amalgam of ballet and cantata which in the end make it succeed best in concert performance.

That is what this recording presents: a concert performance recorded live at Helsinki, and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose credentials in the Stravinsky repertoire are hardly equalled among his contemporaries. In recent years he has performed Perséphone right across the world: in London, in Los Angeles, and of course in Helsinki. His command and evident love of the score are beyond question. And the same might also be said of the tenor Andrew Staples, who sings the role of the priest Eumolpus, and the idiomatic narrator Pauline Cheviller in the title role. Gide altered Homer's original story of the abduction and rape of Perséphone by Pluto, so that she goes down to Hades of her own volition, as token in pity for the lost souls of the underworld. Across a duration of approaching an hour, it is necessary that there should be a range of contrasts and it is in the music for Eumolpus, for tenor sometimes with chorus, that this aspect mostly derives. On the other hand there is Perséphone herself, whose lines of narrative really depend upon the beauty of sound offered by the French language itself. As such Pauline Cheviller is wholly idiomatic, at once beautiful in tone and clear in diction, though her performance does not dismiss memories of the two glowing performances that Vera Zorina recorded with the composer conducting.

Salonen conducts this performance with complete authority, so that the ebb and flow of the music always sounds entirely right while fully integrated into a longer term vision. The balancing of the forces is successfully achieved in the live recording, though in the larger ensemble numbers the orchestra is accorded rather less priority than the voices, while not losing any of the detail however. This is an important point: while Stravinsky employs a large orchestra, his treatment of it is fastidious with many passages relying on delicacy and 'chamber music' textures.

This live recording from Pentatone has abundant atmosphere and the Helsinki audience is impeccably behaved throughout. The single SACD comes in a nicely produced box which contains a substantial booklet, including the text in French with translations in English and German.

Terry Barfoot



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