STRAVINSKY Perséphone (Salonen)
‘A humanist Rite of Spring’ was Elliott Carter’s description of Stravinsky’s ‘melodrama with dance’, composed in 1933-34 to a text by André Gide. One of the great works of his neoclassical period, it has also proved to be among the most elusive. Written for tenor, female speaker, two choirs and orchestra, it amalgamates spoken drama, ballet and oratorio in ways that make it both unclassifiable and difficult to perform successfully. Its outings have always been rare.
Perséphone’s genesis was messy. It was commissioned by the dancer Ida Rubinstein but the collaboration soured when Gide took offence at Stravinsky’s decision to ignore his versification and set the libretto syllabically: Gide subsequently absented himself from the premiere, in which Rubinstein both danced and spoke the title-role. In the early 1930s Gide had publicly embraced communism, which he saw idiosyncratically as the active fulfilment of Christ’s teaching in the Gospels, and his text reinvents Homeric myth along religious-political lines by making Perséphone descend voluntarily to the Underworld out of compassion for its suffering inhabitants rather than being abducted by Pluto. One can’t imagine that Stravinsky was entirely in sympathy with its stance.
Carter’s description of Perséphone as ‘humanist’ is perhaps inaccurate, though it is indeed very much a second Rite of Spring, albeit one which replaces violence with the contemplation of ideas of self-sacrifice and renewal: the priest Eumolpus, both celebrant and narrator, presides over a spoken and danced re enactment of Perséphone’s effective death and resurrection, while a congregation of believers reflects upon what they witness. The work could be best described as a ‘ballet-oratorio’, comparable to the ‘opera-oratorio’ of Oedipus rex, with which it has much in common: the use of framing devices to keep us at arm’s length from the drama while exposing us to the emotions it conveys; choral writing that glances both at Orthodox church music and Baroque oratorio; the sparse yet effective orchestral writing. The dances, meanwhile, peer back through Le baiser de la fée, which Rubinstein also commissioned, to the ballets of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov.
Esa-Pekka Salonen is the most recent conductor to champion the work, first with the Philharmonia in London in 2016, then last year, with the same soloists, at the Finnish National Opera, where this superb recording was made. His approach is pitched somewhere between the steely solemnity of Stravinsky’s own New York Philharmonic version (Sony, 11/57) and the more effusive lyricism of Kent Nagano with the LPO (Virgin/Erato, 6/92). Orchestral textures are clean yet sensuous, rhythms exactingly precise. The instrumental solos, sometimes twining round the voices like obbligatos, sometimes carrying the narrative forwards, are all beautifully done. In lesser hands, the score can seem episodic. Salonen, however, forges it into a unified drama, in which not a note or word seems wasted.
The choral singing, meanwhile, is warm and focused, the counterpoint admirably clear. Andrew Staples makes a fine Eumolpus, lyrical yet authoritative – as good as Nagano’s Anthony Rolfe Johnson and vastly preferable to Stravinsky’s abrasive-sounding Richard Robinson. Pauline Cheviller, meanwhile, plays the title-role with great sincerity, giving free rein to the incantatory quality of Gide’s verse where some actresses are apt to hold back. She’s placed very close in a recording that is otherwise immaculately balanced, but that is a minor cavil: this is an exceptional achievement, and the best recording of Perséphone that I know.