Stravinsky's Les noces
The Gramophone Choice
Coupled with Mass. Cantata on Old English Texts
Carolyn Sampson sop Susan Parry mez Vsevolod Grivnov, Jan Kobow tens Maxim Mikhailov bass Berlin Radio Chamber Choir; musikFabrik / Daniel Reuss
Harmonia Mundi HMC80 1913 (66’ · DDD · T/t) Buy from Amazon
Stravinsky’s recording of Les noces is famous for its ruthlessness, yet the piece is about a folk wedding, and one feature of most weddings is joy. That, a feeling of rhythmic joy, is what makes this new performance so exhilarating. The rhythms are unrelenting, spellbinding, only pausing for the blessing, the two mothers’ lament, and the moment the mother lets her daughter go. The performance is terrific, directed with superb exuberance by Daniel Reuss.
Why is the Mass not better known? Stravinsky, an ardent believer, wrote it for himself and for liturgical use, but it is only really known from recordings. It too has an archaic feeling but it is wonderfully lyrical and inspired. The pungent harmonies give it bite, especially in the thrilling Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei is haunting in the same way that the ‘alleluias’ at the end of the Symphony of Psalms are unforgettable. The Cantata, too, opens gloriously and is lyrically inspired throughout, using four verses from the Lyke-Wake Dirge interspersed with polyphonic ricercari allotted to solo voices accompanied by celestial flutes, oboe, cor anglais and cello. The music is extraordinarily beautiful – and here is another surprise: it is possible to write serial music worth listening to! The performances are all marvellous: who would have expected to hear Carolyn Sampson singing Stravinsky? This record is not to be missed.
Mlada Khudoley sop Olga Savova mez Alexander Timchenko ten Andrei Serov bass Svetlana Smolina, Yulia Zaichkina, Alexander Mogilevsky, Maxim Mogilevsky pfs
Sergei Semishkur ten Oedipus Ekaterina Semenchuk mez Jocasta Evgeny Nikitin bass-bar Creon, Messenger Mikhail Petrenko bass Tiresias Alexander Timchenko ten Shepherd Gérard Depardieu Narrator Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre / Valery Gergiev
Mariinsky MAR0510 (74’ · DDD · T/t) Buy from Amazon
Les noces is the most emphatically Russian of Stravinsky’s early masterpieces, rooted in the soil and the customs of peasant weddings, and at least two recordings have put traditional Russian folksongs alongside. When Stravinsky’s 1962 recording of Les noces was made in the USA, he said: ‘I wonder if Les noces can ever completely reveal itself to a non-Russian.’ If that seems discouraging, then here is the real thing with the Mariinsky chorus and orchestra under Gergiev, recorded on their own label in the concert hall of the Mariinsky Theatre.
Right from the start, with soprano Mlada Khudoley’s incisive grace notes, there’s a rasping thrust that never lets up. Some of this is due to the Russian language as opposed to the smoother French text usually heard. Later on, the ecstatic frenzy is faster than Stravinsky or his markings but unfortunately there are times when the tenor and bass soloists get submerged.
By the time of Oedipus Rex (1927), Stravinsky was a European taking on Western music from Handel to Verdi with kleptomaniac gusto. Oedipus also became known in an American recording under Stravinsky.
The 1963 release had an all-star cast of soloists and an English narrator; later, Craft’s performance, supervised by Stravinsky, had an American narrator; and now, with the Mariinsky team, we have Cocteau’s original French, rather eccentrically delivered with some odd emphases.
This time the Russians are singing Latin but their timbre brings something special to this monumental Greek drama, with its seductive Italianate melodies outlining horrific events. Of the soloists, Ekaterina Semenchuk (Jocasta) sounds plummy at first but she and Sergei Semishkur (Oedipus) bring electrifying intensity to the duet where they realise their guilt. Overall, this is a double-bill of at times shattering impact.