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Igor Stravinksy - Symphony of Psalms, Les Noces

Igor Stravinksy

Symphony of Psalms
Les Noces
Lamentations of Jeremiah

Robert Craft

Koch International Classics

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Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky
Although I hadn't listened to the composer's own recording of "Svadebka" ('Les noces') in a while, I was a little surprised that one reviewer (of the new Craft recording) expressed disappointment with Stravinsky's (though, in fairness, all I clearly recall was a dissatisfaction with the sound of the recording).

Also, it is not long ago that I listened to the recording of the Pokrowsky Ensemble, which, while it is really quite an accomplishment on the part of the singers, is rather folksier than I think Stravinsky wanted (his music draws deep from the spring of folksong spring, but he was every inch a musical aristocrat in presentation) — quite apart from the mechanized MacIntosh MIDI 'reduction' of the accompaniment in the Pokrowsky recording. The mechanization does make for strict metrical precision (a little too strict, in some passages ... least of all can we forgive the indecent rush through the marvelous last page), but it has woeful timbral shortcomings (I still shudder at the memory of the improbably shallow, gutless timpani).

Both practically and morally I am prepared to forgive the imperfections of the Stravinsky recording (including the great irregularity – nay, effrontery – of its being sung in English ... even though the sonic quality comes very close to getting in the way of that last page of the score, just when bright clarity is especially wanted.

But this new Craft recording has the edge, not only in the recording's sound quality, but in balance. One place where I was especially displeased with the Pokrowsky MacIntosh was the opening of Scene iii, women's choir in octaves accompanied by the four pianos playing a soft ostinato in unison: there is a great difference between hearing four actual pianos play a passage together, and hearing MIDI notes that have been sent to a practically unvaried piano patch (not being a musical techno-dweeb, I am not sure how the Pokrowsky ought to have done it differently ... apart from the suggestion, "hire four pianists" ....)

[There is a great difference, and I am tempted to say, If you cannot hear the difference, and/or do not believe in the difference, perhaps you ought to do something other than record Stravinsky, a composer who was also an accomplished pianist.]

You may guess that this was a passage I particularly listened for in the Stravinsky, but the sound was all women's choir and no piano(s) ... reason told me that Barber, Copland, Foss and Sessions must be playing, but my ears refused to offer much corroborative evidence.

I could easily make myself tedious with praise for this new "Svadebka" (without ingratitude for Stravinsky's document of the piece), but all I will add for now is that the high soprano A's near the end of Scene iii, and the high B's before the groom's wonderful passage at the end of the ballet, are soul-searingly clean.

It is a long while since I have heard the Symphony of Psalms done this well, if ever I have. Always pleased when those punctuative E-G minor thirds have actual timbre and not just slap. The cello and horn before the opening chorus are perfect, and make this the greatest discovery in unison doubling since the flute and clarinet in the Schubert "Unfinished."

The brasses before the forte recap (while the chorus sings "et peregrinus sicut omnes patres mei") are there, they're clean, they mean business ... golly, it seems I've never heard this piece before, the brasswinds exude such confidence here. Should go on, really, but I forebear. Save one last observation, that the third movement is brilliantly paced as well as musically phrased ... the trademark coda-ostinato that goes on forever, in echo of the angels who ceaselessly sing praise before the throne of the Almighty, is magical and unwearied.

I am in absolute awe of a group of singers who can sing Threni so musically, and so accurately.

In De Elegia Prima, the flugelhorn (for which Stravinsky writes with characteristically Stravinskyan agility, and without much space to draw breath through long passages) sounds very sweet. The flugelhorn and Tenor I solo tend to emerge out of a fuller texture into very exposed duets, which they carry off flawlessly.

My favorite 'moment' in the whole score must be the sepulchral semitone crunch (in the middle of the Sensus Spei, beginning just before the choir sing "Scrutemur vias nostras") between the C-flat on the harp (which must be the lowest note playable on the harp) and the B-flat in the sarrusophone; that subtle pitch-shiver is a beauty.

Robert Craft
Robert Craft
Craft's notes are of interest, as one might expect. In the passage before the harp/sarrusophone shiver I mention, the Bass II soloist has these repeated low E-flats ("Ut contereret sub pedibus suis" &c.), doubled in piano and (an octave higher) timpani; Craft rightly lauds Stravinsky that this is not covered by the spare accompaniment (Martin Robson sings a fantastic Bass II here) ... but the low E's which are the bottom of a leaping figure the Bass II sings as part of a vocal quartet ("eo quod non esset requies" &c.) are, alas, rather easily covered.

Craft praises the three chords to which the unaccompanied choir sings "Perii" (p.47, m.309) as "the most astonishingly beautiful chords in all Stravinsky" ... such an assessment is necessarily subjective and unassailable, but any chords answering to such a description would beat out a highly crowded field. They are indeed a sweet troika of chords, I unhesitatingly allow; and it is especially impressive to note the singers' nothing-short-of-marvelous accuracy. Heaven alone knows where they got their pitches ... it's been six bars since the last instruments (a brace of trombones) sounded. The difficulties facing a capable local choir in singing Howells are very much fresh in memory; I can imagine a choir getting this right, but it would demand living with the piece some little while, I should think.

This recording is an utterly amazing realization of what must be Stravinsky's least-familiar major score (running approximately half an hour). I think of it not only as a marvelous document of this almost-unknown work, but as a testament to choral preparation and execution, a great credit to Simon Joly and his singers. I would have pounded the table on this recording's behalf on the merits of Svadebka (Les noces) alone. Now that I have gotten more into the guts of Threni, my table-pounding has become yet more insistent.

~Karl Henning

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Track Listing

Igor Stravinsky
Symphony of Psalms
Les Noces
Lamentations of Jeremiah
London Philharmonia Orchestra
Robert Craft

  1. Symphony of Psalms, for chorus & orchestra
  2. Les Noces III (The Wedding), ballet in 4 tableaux for vocal soloists, chorus, 4 pianos & percussion
  3. Threni: id est Lamentationes Jerimić Prophetć, for 6 vocal soloists, chorus, & orchestra

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