STRAVINSKY Cantata on Old English Texts; (Les) Noces; Mass
Seeing the Royal Ballet perform Les noces, or watching the Bolshoi in Petrushka and The Firebird, certainly confirms for me that Stravinsky’s music is far greater than the ballets it was designed to accompany. Diaghilev knew what he was doing when he hired the fledgeling composer.
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 (incidentally, is this where Orff’s Carmina Burana came from?).
Why is the Mass not better known? 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.