Stravinsky Oedipus Rex
Michel St Denis’s famous staging for Sadler’s Wells Opera more than 40 years ago, conducted by the youthful Colin Davis, was an occasion that brought this singular masterpiece to life in an electrifying way, undoubtedly helped by the confined space of the old Sadler’s Wells Theatre. It familiarised many with a work then less often heard than is the case today. That production was a hieratical, taut experience never to be forgotten. Shortly after, EMI recorded the work with the original soloists, but with the RPO in place of the company’s orchestra and Sir Ralph Richardson as the positive, if somewhat mannered, narrator. The set appeared on the cover of Gramophone in March 1963, but I don’t believe the LP lasted in the catalogue and, till now, it has never appeared on CD.
Memory did not deceive in recalling Davis’s approach as highly dramatic, greatly detailed, rhythmically exhilarating – surely close to what the composer intended and only slightly marred by a few passing moments of inaccurate playing. Davis’s later version (Orfeo, 6/84) hasn’t anything like the same immediacy. The production team here realised that a relatively close, dry acoustic is what the work needs; so many of its successors, as David Gutman pointed out when reviewing the Ozawa version, are over-reverberant, placing us too far from the stark story.
The other reason to welcome the return of this version is the assumption of the title part by the great Australian tenor Ronald Dowd, too little represented on disc. His lyric-shading-to-heroic tenor is ideal for a part too often cast with a lighter voice. He is fully involved in the role, moving from hubristic complacency to terrible tragedy, the plangency in his tone so right for Oedipus’s music. Not all the others are in his class, but Patricia Johnson is a properly forthright Jocasta and Raimund Herincx a strong Creon. The young Alberto Remedios, later a Siegfried, is a tender Shepherd.
The Ozawa is probably the best of modern recordings, but Stravinsky’s own, his second recording (his first on Philips should be restored to circulation), remains an important document; the An?erl, roughly contemporaneous with the one under review, has much of the same immediacy, and has the late Ivo Zidek as an Oedipus in the Dowd mould. But at its attractive price, Davis’s sharply articulated, vital performance will surely find many takers.