STRAVINSKY Agon; Canticum Sacrum; Requiem Canticles
I can’t recall ever having enjoyed a recording of the late, gnomic Requiem Canticles quite as much as this one: certainly no performance in my experience has sounded as fluent, from the extraordinary 1'23" prelude (a fast, nervous pulsing with string lines crossing each other), through the taut drama of the “Dies irae” to the second interlude (so reminiscent of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments) and the chiming finale, where ritual bells are enacted by celesta, glockenspiel and vibraphone, a distant recollection of Les noces. This was Stravinsky’s last major composition and although it plays for barely a quarter of an hour seems fully to justify that dodecaphonic route that so many at the time had criticised him for taking.
The marginally more expansive and noticeably more austere Canticum sacrum marked the composer’s return to the Russian Orthodox faith and calls on the unique combination (unique to Stravinsky that is) of flute, three oboes and bassoons, four trumpets and trombones, harp, violas, basses and organ, in addition to the voices. Again Michael Gielen drives a confident course through a work that brooks no compromise and culminates in a harshly oratorical “Illi autem profectae”, one of the most striking episodes in all late Stravinsky.
The ballet Agon post-dates Canticum sacrum, just, and employs an even wider array of instruments, all of them used with the greatest economy and expressive force, the distinctive and rhythmically alluring interlude/prelude, a recurring motif, connecting a series of brief but terse and mostly outspoken dance movements. Agon is pure aural sculpture, angular and uncompromising (with a short-lived fugue in the finale), but in a performance such as this that focuses its every pungent detail makes for an alluring and stimulating listen. The recordings, which date from between 2004 and 2007, are both airy and admirably clear. A worthy addition to Hänssler’s absorbing Michael Gielen series.