STRAVINSKY. Symphony in Three Movements, Symphony of Psalms, Symphony
Berliner Philharmoniker & Rundfunkchor Berlin, conducted by Simon Rattle.
EMI Classics Opendisc 2-07630 0. 2008. 75.37
These works from the 1930's and 1940's can be said to represent the
quintessence of "neoclassicism" and are among the most striking works
of the last century. Stravinsky wrote the Symphony of Psalms for chorus
and orchestra minus violins, violas and clarinets for the 50th anniversary
of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and revised it in 1948 (the version
recorded here.) The Symphony in C was written with the New York Philharmonic
originally in mind but premiered by the Chicago Symphony in 1940. The
Symphony in Three Movements did get its premiere from the New York
philharmonic in January 1946.
I have a strong tendency to look to Stravinsky's own performances, which
tend to emphasize a staccato angularity of phrasing, as the norm for
these works, though he was on record as praising the performances of
Ansermet, which tended to round the corners, so to speak. Looking back
from the vantage point of his eighties (in 1963) Stravinsky criticized
his own "succession of ostinatos" in the Symphony in C. Could he have
heard Rattle's performances of these symphonies, Stravinsky would not
have been displeased, I think. Rattle's phrasing is always clearly
articulated, razor sharp in fact, and he manages to cope with Stravinsky's
sudden and varied shifts in mood, dynamics and tempo, from light, upbeat
and playful, to slashing and intense, with sometimes heavy, even ponderous
The Symphony in C's opening movement is given simply a metronome
marking by Stravinsky, but even that movement is considerably varied.
The following "Larghetto concertante" is relaxed, flexible and songlike
for half its duration than suddenly intense. The Allegretto shows some
vigorous contrasts and reveals a concerto grosso offsetting of larger
and smaller forces. These symphonies, in fact, often come close--at
least--to being chamber symphonies, more than I had noticed previously.
The Symphony in Three Movements contains some strong echoes of Sacre
du printemps, with similar slashing phrases in the opening and closing
movements. The middle movement is quiet and gentle in contrast, with
lighter orchestration: a harp and flute are heard together at one point
and other passages sound much like a woodwind quartet. There is a brief
moment two thirds of the way through the movement that I swear sounds
Coplandesque! The finale's vigor is emphasized with brass and drums but
is relieved with a brief piano solo and a characteristically neoclassical
lightness before renewed intensity.
The Symphony of Psalms, for chorus and reduced orchestra, has three
movements, with the successive movements each twice the length of the
previous one. The texts are in Latin. The opening "Exaudi" is declamatory
and builds simply, steadily and strongly. The second movement begins
slowly and solemnly, for solo oboe and then flutes, in counterpoint for
a good two minutes before the chorus enters, with multiple lines of
melody. There is a lot of counterpoint. A sustained loud outburst is
maintained for most of the rest of the six and a half minutes. The final
movement, "Laudate," is one of Stravinsky's most beautiful pieces. The
dominant mood is quiet and lovely but there are fast, furious and loud
passages with the strong, sharp irregular rhythms that Stravinsky loved
to write and which Rattle handles with ease. Both at the beginning and
for a long stretch toward the end a soft regular drumbeat underlies a
legato vocal line.
In one passage this slow steady rhythm underlies the male voices uttering
a syllable at a time between rests for the voices. The slow, quiet
legato line continues for a long time to the end of the piece.
The sound is good. The woodwinds come across especially clearly.
Copyright 2009 R. James Tobin
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