* 3 Russian Sacred Choruses
* Symphony of Psalms
Mary Ann Hart (mezzo); Thomas Bogdan (tenor);
Fred Sherry (cello); Stephen Taylor (oboe);
Melanie Field (oboe & cor anglais); Michael Parloff, Bart Feller (flute);
David Wilson-Johnson (narrator);
The Simon Joly Chorale; The Gregg Smith Singers;
Orchestra of St. Luke's, Philharmonia Orchestra/Robert Craft
Naxos 8.557504 Total time: 73:03
Summary for the Busy Executive: You could do worse.
Conductor, writer, polemicist Robert Craft has long championed three of
the most "difficult" composers of the last century: Schoenberg, Webern,
and, most notably, Stravinsky. I have little idea how well his career
has carried him. Recently, I haven't heard of live concerts, and for
me he always was a "record" conductor. No purveyor of Brahms, Craft
concentrated on music hardly anybody else at the time performed: Schoenberg,
Gesualdo, Webern, and Stravinsky. We may find it hard to believe in a
"neglected" Stravinsky, but, excepting the first three ballets, his music
had a hard time getting a hearing, at least in the United States and
Britain. This wasn't a mere matter of the late serial music, but of
such neoclassic masterpieces as the Octet, the "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto,
the Symphonies in C and in Three Movements, Apollo, the Concerto in D,
and so on. Stravinsky became an iconic cultural figure largely due to
Craft, who prepared orchestras for the composer (not really a professional
conductor), programmed and recorded Stravinsky, and polemicized on the
Almost all the works here come, at least to some extent, from the late
Forties and early Fifties, when Stravinsky's reputation and income were
probably at their low point.
Babel was part of the Genesis Suite, a collaborative project by film
composer and conductor Nathaniel Shilkret that united several composers
living in sunny Southern Cal: Schoenberg, Milhaud, Castelnuovo-Tedesco,
Toch, Tansman, Stravinsky, and Shilkret himself. To some extent,
Stravinsky composed his bit in hopes of landing a movie contract, hopes
never realized. Although the Schoenberg and Stravinsky movements have
achieved lives of their own, the piece in its entirety has remained
little more than a curiosity (a modern recording is available on Naxos
Stravinsky finished his Mass in 1948 and the Cantata in 1952.
The Cantata, however, has its roots in the Forties and Stravinsky's
collaboration with W. H. Auden on the opera The Rake's Progress. Auden
had given Stravinsky a collection of English lyric poetry. Stravinsky's
English was always, putting it nicely, idiosyncratic. He read the book
through to get English prosody into his head. Poetry from the medieval
period caught him, and he began settings of individual poems. At some
time, the idea for the Cantata emerged, but with other commissions
pressing and the composer's normal slow pace of writing, it took some
years to complete.
The Symphony of Psalms, originally composed in 1930 for Koussevitzky
and the Boston Symphony, got a revision in 1948, I guess mainly because
of copyright considerations. It so happened that Stravinsky, due to the
fact that the Soviet Union had never signed the copyright convention,
never received royalties on his three most popular works: Firebird,
Petrushka, and Rite of Spring. Accordingly, he revised them in the
Forties to register his authorship, as well as to clean up some of the
scoring -- not always for the better, however. Petrushka especially
lost something in the admittedly clearer orchestration -- a kind of sonic
abundance and exuberance. For this reason alone, I prefer the 1911
Petrushka. At any rate, perhaps the same general problem of establishing
copyright applied to the Symphony.
The 3 Sacred Russian Choruses, the exceptions, were composed at various
times in the Twenties and the Thirties. The Credo, written in 1932,
received the latest ministrations of the composer in 1964. It apparently
stayed in Stravinsky's ear. One can hear its influence on the declamation
of the Requiem Canticles of 1966.
Most of the program exemplifies Stravinsky's sacred music. When one
looks at all his items in the genre, one sees that the composer had
definite ideas about what sacred music should do. Critics have called
these scores "ritualistic." I don't consider the term all that helpful.
After all, The Rite of Spring explicitly depicts ritual as, implicitly,
does Oedipus Rex, and neither sounds particularly like, say, the Mass.
For Stravinsky, the sacred stops time. Eternity is a single, ecstatic
moment. All of these pieces make use of the same set of devices, mostly
repetition, but also a near-unvarying choral or orchestral sound. The
Symphony of Psalms to a great extent stands outside of this, until you
get to the final "Laudate Dominums." This notion of the sacred poses
huge problems for performance, problems which Craft doesn't always solve.
You can't allow stasis to collapse into boredom. Stravinsky's stasis
implies tension and intention -- a tipping point, if you like, through
which the music moves.
Craft has always been a "cool" conductor, one reason why I don't find
him all that effective in Schoenberg and Webern. His approach works
best in neo-classical Stravinsky, but even here cool isn't everything.
Stravinsky, of course, famously and many times declared his preference
for cool and reserved, but many of his own performances don't bear this
out. I happen to like vitamins in my Stravinsky. Craft's Russian Sacred
Choruses are cool enough to lay out on a mortuary slab. I prefer Warland,
who achieves a rapturous intensity that eludes Craft. In the Mass, I
prefer Bernstein, for the same reason. For the Symphony of Psalms, to
me nobody beats Robert Shaw on RCA, but that recording hasn't been
commercially available for years. Craft does okay. On the plus side,
you get a very clear texture. I hear lines in this performance I haven't
heard in others. On the negative, the music never really comes alive.
Furthermore, the Simon Joly Chorale consistently lags behind the beat
in the first movement. Craft does best in the Cantata, for my money the
best performance currently available (that is, of the performances I've
heard). It doesn't differ all that much from Stravinsky's own reading
on Sony -- part of that label's big Stravinsky set, currently withdrawn.
Since most people would probably get the CD for the Symphony, I can't
recommend Craft with so many more vigorous accounts available. For those
with more arcane tastes, the Cantata and Babel stand well among current
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