with Jennifer Johnson: Jocasta, Stuart Skelton: Oedipus, Gidon Saks: Creon, Fanny Ardant: narrator
London Symphony Orchestra
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
LSO Live, 2014
This LSO Live recording includes Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Apollon musagète performed by John Eliot Gardiner and the London Symphony Orchestra during a concert held at the Barbican Hall in London in April 2013 – a concert that, judging from the recording, was made interesting by Gardiner’s usual incisiveness, but spoilt by the disappointing singing of the four soloists and by the equally dissatisfying recitation of the narrator.
Oedipus Rex is an opera-oratorio Stravinsky composed «in Latin on the subject of a tragedy of the ancient world, with which everyone would be familiar», as he wrote to his collaborator Jean Cocteau. His impulse was partly religious, as the composer asserted later, and the work was influenced by a variety of models from the Baroque (it follows the structure of the Baroque oratorio and reminds more or less explicitly of Handel and Gluck) to music of the previous century, being Verdi the most remarkable composer.
Oedipus Rex was first performed at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris in May 1927 but received a cold reception. It was planned as a surprise for the 20th anniversary of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and for this reason it was performed during that season, with Stravinsky himself conducted (not well, it was reported) and in front of an audience that did not like a performance of something that was not a ballet. Diaghilev himself disliked the work and never tried to revive it, so that the second performance took place only the next year in Vienna and immediately after in Berlin, under the conduction of Otto Klemperer.
A couple of months after the premiere of Oedipus Rex, Stravinsky started attending to the composition of Apollon musagète (or simply Apollo, as Diaghilev renamed it), a ballet commissioned by the Library of Congress for performance in its Music Room and composed in a way that reveals that Stravinsky’s classicism was «a response to an intimate need of the mind and heart».
As I wrote before, this recording is not satisfactory from every point of view, especially in Oedipus Rex, while Apollon musagète is far more agreeable as it does not require soloists. For what concern the opera-oratorio, Gardiner conducts well, with enough energy and élan to preserve its statuesque greatness but not its detached solemnity, a feature that was dear to Stravinsky as much as the other. Gardiner is followed faithfully by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Monteverdi Choir, so that the choral parts are the best expression of that monumental spirit that the conductor seeks.
As for the soloists and the narrator, none of them is remarkable: Stuart Skelton is Oedipus only for what concerns the colour of the voice, while his inspiration is not reliable; Jennifer Johnson is a nervous Jocasta and her voice, though beautiful in colour, is not fine in the first part of her scene, especially when she starts singing after a pause, and later it is not as smooth as it should and the melodic skips are sometimes arduous and perfunctory; finally, Gidon Saks as Creon is dry, indifferent and the vibrato of his voice is sometimes annoying. The worst of the voices is anyway that of the narrator Fanny Ardant, who recites in an exaggerated way that, instead of highlighting the most significant passages of the text, shows off only her chronic hoarseness.
Gardiner is finally on his own in Apollon musagète and there are no problems with it. The ballet is refined and offers a pleasing end to the album, but, considering the flaws of the pivotal work, the shorter work can do very little to improve the situation.