This SACD on the London Symphony's in-house label offers quite simply the finest recording of Oedipus Rex I've encountered in decades. The fact that it's derived from live performances is amazing. It may well even surpass Stravinsky's own recordings of the work, which date to the 1950s (mono) and 1963 (stereo). The tempos are brisk – something we've generally come to expect from Sir John Eliot Gardiner – and the playing is accurate and committed by the London Symphony Orchestra. In addition, Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir male members sing splendidly throughout as do the soloists Jennifer Johnston, Stuart Skelton and Gidon Saks. The narrator, Fanny Ardant, has a froggy but oddly attractive voice that she projects with a fine sense for drama – you almost jump to your feet when you hear her practically shout the opening word, Spectateurs. Her narration is in French of course, though I would guess that were she speaking English she would be equally effective, accent or no.
Oedipus Rex is not an easy work to bring off: set to a libretto by Jean Cocteau, which is based on Sophocles' Greek tragedy Oedipus the King, the text was translated into Latin and features narration in French (actually the composer suggested the narrator could speak in the language of the audience). Thus, the work is a complex amalgamation of languages that features no action onstage – just the characters singing the Latin text – but does offer a narrator who always divulges ahead of time what is going to happen in the story. Got all that? Gardiner understands all the unusual aspects of the work and from the opening, you take note of the ebullient performance by the choir, how they sing the music as if every note has been carefully thought out to yield the most effective sense of drama, with accenting, dynamics and tempo shifts all perfectly judged. The orchestra is no less subtle here and throughout the performance.
I've alluded to the brisk tempos above and thus to give you an idea of the pacing on this recording, Gardiner clocks in at 49:01 and that includes a repeat of the Gloria chorus. Bernstein takes over fifty-two minutes, and Ancerl, Craft, whom I reviewed here in 2005 (Naxos 8.557499), Levine, Welser-Möst, and most others are over fifty minutes. Not a great difference in timing obviously, but a signficiant one nonetheless. Still, we can't judge recordings just by the stopwatch; otherwise, one might hastily conclude Gardiner is a bit faster than the norm with perhaps little to compensate for his briskness. But Gardiner never sounds fast or pushy; rather, he makes the music take wing and come across as urgent and intense, crackling with energy and kinetic drive as he points up the irony and black comedy in the work. Try the Second Act chorus (Muller in vestibulo) that announces Oedipus' tragic fate, sung to a football cheer. Here, with swift pacing, deft accenting by the chorus and well-judged dynamics by all, the music seems so perfectly to capture the brutal irony and tragedy of Oedipus, who in trying to avoid a prophecy that he would murder his father and marry his mother, unwittingly fulfills it.
If I have one minor cavil, it is the Gloria Chorus: while it is well played and sung by all parties, the drums are a little too prominent, pushing the chorus at one point too much into the background. To me it appears not to be a miking problem, but a slight miscalculation by Gardiner. In any event, it is a minor matter that does not detract significantly from this otherwise superb effort.
Apollon Musagète, scored for string orchestra, gets a fine performance from Gardiner and the LSO players. To be honest, I have never much warmed up to this subtle but rather arid work. Yes, there is much to admire in the music, from Stravinsky's masterful scoring to his often beautiful lyricism and playful chipper moods. If you're an admirer of this piece though, this SACD will prove a spectacular bargain as it contains over seventy-nine minutes of prime Stravinsky in splendid performances and excellent sound. Texts are included in the album booklet. Highly recommended!
Copyright © 2014, Robert Cummings