Igor Stravinsky – Les Noces, Mass
Anny Mory, soprano; Patricia Parker, mezzosoprano; John Mitchinson, tenor; Paul Hudson, bass
Pianos: Martha Argerich (I), Krystian Zimerman (II), Cyprien Katsaris (III), Homero Francesch (IV)
English Bach Festival Chorus
Nicholas Cleobury, chorus master
English Bach Festival Percussion Ensemble
Trinity Boys’ Choir
David Squibb, chorus master
English Bach Festival Chorus
Members of the English Chamber Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon, 1977 (1988)
At first sight, the presence of a profane work as Les noces may seem rather strange next to a Mass. This choice is motivated by the fact that, when Stravinsky wrote the sacred work, he was studying early church music with its plainsong, fauxbourdon, troping and antiphony, as well as his own production and in particular the ritual music of which precisely Les noces, together with the Symphonies d’instruments à vent, is one of the most important samples.
Les Noces (or Svadebka, in the original Russian title) had a complex and long gestation period, as the first idea to compose a work on texts taken from 19th-century collections of wedding poetry written by Kireevsky and, for the choruses and songs, by Sakharov and Afanasyev, came to Stravinsky’s mind in the early 1910s, but it was only after a decade that the premiere took place in Paris at the Ballets Russes with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska. The purpose of Stravinsky, as he himself told in the Chronicle of my life was not «to reproduce the ritual of peasant weddings, and I paid little heed to ethnographical considerations. My idea was to compose a sort of scenic ceremony, using as I liked those ritualistic elements so abundantly provided by village customs which had been established for centuries in the celebration of Russian marriages. I took my inspirations from those customs, but reserved to myself the right to use them with absolute freedom».
Moreover, his interest was not aroused by the «stories, which were often crude, or the pictures and metaphors, always so deliciously unexpected, as the sequence of the words and syllables, and the cadence they create, which produces an effect on one’s sensibilities very closely akin to that of music». It can be said then that at the origin of Les noces were both nostalgic and musical reasons.
The first version of Les noces was already completed by October 1917 and was scored for a large mixed band, similar to that of The Rite of Spring. It was this version that Stravinsky played for Diaghilev who, at the end of the performance, «wept and said it was the most beautiful and the most purely Russian creation of our Ballet», as Stravinsky later recalled. Les noces underwent many revisions, to the point that it is Renard and not this the work that better exemplifies Stravinsky’s wartime quest for an idealized folk modernism. The composer gave the final touches to Les Noces in May 1923 and the first performance of what the composer entitled ”Choreographed Scenes with Music and Voices” premiered the next month in Paris.
The Mass belongs to a later period (it was written discontinuously between 1944 and 1948) and, as the New Grove states, it is «a product of a renewed religious consciousness». Differently from Les noces and from the major part of Stravinsky’s work, the Mass was not commissioned but originated precisely from that spiritual necessity and, despite the composer’s Orthodox faith, he composed a Roman Catholic Mass. Stravinsky explained this choice in this way: «I wanted my Mass to be used liturgically, an outright impossibility as far as the Russian Church was concerned, as Orthodox tradition proscribes musical instruments in its services and as I can endure unaccompanied singing in only the most harmonically primitive music». The Mass has a severe, anti-Romantic character, highly influenced by the early church music by which Stravinsky was inspired. The first complete performance took place in Milan on 27 October 1948, but Kyrie and Gloria were already performed a year and a half before under the conduction of Irving Fine, accompanied by two pianos.
Both these works are performed in this recording by excellent musicians and singers. A real peasant world is difficult to imagine listening to the music of Les noces, but this cannot be said of the festive atmosphere of the wedding thanks to exceptional pianist as Martha Argerich and Krystian Zimerman and to fine singers as soprano Anny More, who is at ease in the high tessitura, and tenor John Mitchinson. A particularly vivid performance is that of the first tableau, “The Tresses”, with its convincing representation of the bride’s cry.
After Les noces, the order and gravity of the Mass is a contrast and a pleasure at the same time. Its austerity is intact in Bernstein’s performance as he is gives prominence to the hieratic nature of the invoked divinity, distant but not cold and easily reminding – if not of a Russian icon – of a triptych of the Western Medieval tradition. For this reason the Mass may result a little distant to the audience, but the purpose is so clear that this is never confused with lack of inspiration on the conductor’s part.