STRAVINSKY Symphony of Psalms; Symphony In C; Symphony In Three Movements
While I was listening to this handsome new recording of Stravinsky’s unashamedly confrontational Symphony in Three Movements, tragic news of a massive death toll was still unfolding in the aftermath of the Chinese earthquake disaster. I was reminded that Stravinsky’s symphony was inspired in part by watching a documentary film about the “scorched earth” policy launched during the second Sino-Japanese war (1938) and the Huang He flood that resulted from it.
The Symphony doesn’t so much start as erupt and Sir Simon Rattle’s second recording of it has impressive immediacy, richer tonally than his rougher-edged 1980s recording with the CBSO (4/89; tempi throughout are similar), but textually warmer and with more refined solos. Interesting points of comparison arise at around 4'00" into the first movement (chamber-like textures involving strings and winds) and the serene passage for strings and harp at 2'08" into the second movement, the relative earnestness of the earlier version replaced here by a true but “terrible beauty”.
Pierre Boulez’s 1996 BPO recording (DG, 4/00) opens more steadily and with a more pronounced rasp, but there’s something about the way Boulez handles the stammering music that follows – it bristles, has a more palpable “edge” – though I wasn’t sure about the relatively deadpan opening of Boulez’s account of the finale. A third credible rival, coupled identically, features the SWF Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg under Michael Gielen (Hänssler), a gritty, sinewy performance, less well groomed than either Rattle’s or Boulez’s and more resonantly recorded but full of grim purpose. On balance Rattle offers the most polished option, mindful of both mood and structure and beautifully engineered, but don’t forget Stravinsky’s own 1946 (New York Philharmonic) version, which reflects a new-born masterpiece in the heat of its creation.
Rattle’s Symphony of Psalms is very sensitively traced, with a rowdy account of the reveille-style “Laudate Dominum” passage 4'27" into the last movement. However, the real highlight of this CD is Rattle’s pressing but never impatient account of what in my view is Stravinsky’s greatest symphony, the terse and poignant Symphony in C, music forged in the wake of illness and death but that only ever suggests anguish, never confesses it. Tchaikovsky’s spirit looms large, especially in the first movement, at the onset of the angry central climax where Rattle and his Berliners achieve considerable intensity. Interesting to compare Gielen’s transparent and predominantly lyrical reading, especially at that same climax, where the brass really let rip. Rattle focuses each episode without sounding episodic and shapes the Larghetto’s opening most poetically. Stravinsky himself is faster and lighter (especially on his second [stereo] recording) but Rattle gives us both urgency and tonal body. Henceforth, his is a digital front-runner.