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CLASSICAL  February 2007

CLASSICAL February 2007

Subject:

A Wonderful "Symphony of Psalms" Recording

From:

Scott Morrison <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 7 Feb 2007 10:40:21 -0500

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text/plain

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This is my review, at Amazon.com, of a marvelous new release. My review
is at
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000I2IUSO/classicalnet

Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms, Mass, Cantata, Three Russian Sacred Choruses
Robert Craft, cond.; various
Naxos 8.557504

5/5 stars

Robert Craft Gives Us Special Stravinsky Choral Work

This CD is a grab bag, but a very special one. It contains five choral
works, garnered from fairly recent recordings on the Koch and MusicMasters
labels, sung and played by exceedingly sensitive musicians and led by
surely the best Stravinsky conductor we have, Robert Craft.  These are
among the best recordings I've ever heard of these works.

Probably the most important, and certainly the best known, work here is
placed last: the Symphony of Psalms, with the Simon Joly Chorale and the
Philharmonia Orchestra.  This performance very much emphasizes that the
work is for chorus with orchestra, not an orchestral work with incidental
chorus, and it is generally gentler than most performances one hears.
The Simon Joly Chorale is simply sensational here, with subtle inflections
and dynamics, clear diction and impeccable intonation.  Craft wisely
lets the music unfold without any special rhetorical flourishes and in
this respect it resembles Stravinsky's own classic recording.  The very
slow opening ('Alleluia.  Laudate.') of the final movement, Psalm 150,
is ecstatic, making the irruption of the agitato section all the more
effective.  This is a superior Symphony of Psalms.

The disc opens with a cappella works, Three Russian Sacred Choruses,
sung in Slavonic versions of the Pater Noster, Ave Maria and Credo.
Texts with translations for these and the other works here are not in
the Naxos booklet but can be found at

   www.naxos.com/libretti/symphonyofpsalms.htm

Craft conducts them slightly faster than Stravinsky does in his classic
recording but they actually gain from that.  The Gregg Smith Singers are
the chorus.

Mass (1944-48) was written in New York but there is absolutely no new
world influence in the work, unlike other things he was writing at the
time.  It is sung by The Gregg Smith Singers, the group who also recorded
the work in 1960 and who have sung it innumerable times since.  This is
glorious performance that I prefer by a slight margin to Stravinsky's
own version, not only because it is in much better sound but also because
the choral soloists are better.  They are given superb support by members
of the Orchestra of St. Luke's.  The orchestration is especially
inventive, consisting as it does of two quintets, one of oboes and
bassoons and one of trumpets and trombones.

Cantata (1951-52) is based on early English verses including the
Elizabethan bridal song, 'The Maidens Came' and the traditional 'Tomorrow
Shall Be My Dancing Day.' Written hard on the heels of Stravinsky finishing
'The Rake's Progress', the solos were written for two of the singers in
that opera's premiere, Hugues Cuenod and Jennie Tourel.  The musical
forces, in addition to the tenor and mezzo soloists, are a female chorus
(from The Gregg Smith Singers) and an instrumental quintet of two flutes,
two oboes and cello.  The excellent vocal soloists are Mary Ann Hart and
Thomas Bogdan.  The redoubtable Fred Sherry is the cellist.

Finally, there is the brief 'Babel' that recounts the Genesis story
of the building and destruction of the Tower of Babel.  The piece was
originally part of a suite of works by several composers (including
Schoenberg) that retold Genesis texts.  The work has a narrator who reads
from Genesis, Chapter 11, verses 11-19, with one chorus sung (by the
Simon Joly Chorale) to 'Behold the people is one, and they all have one
language.' The orchestra, quite prominent in the work, is the Philharmonia
at the top of their form.  I had not listened to my old recording of
Stravinsky conducting the work in many years, but on comparison with it
I find that narrator David Wilson-Johnson is much superior to John Calicos
on the old recording, largely because he is less overtly, how shall I
say, hammy.

This issue is impeccably presented and recorded.  I would urge Stravinsky
fans, even those who have earlier recordings, including those of the
composer himself, to grab it.

Scott Morrison

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