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Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex / Stravinsky, Pears, Modl, Rohr, Krebs

Stravinsky / Pears / Moedl / Rehfuss
Release Date: 04/30/2013 
Label:  Acanta/Pilz   Catalog #: 233694   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  Martha MödlOtto Von RohrHeinz RehfussHelmut Krebs,   ... 
Conductor:  Igor Stravinsky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne West German Radio Symphony OrchestraNorthwest German Radio Chorus
Number of Discs: 2 
Length: 1 Hours 30 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

STRAVINSKY Apollon musagète. Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Oedipus Rex Igor Stravinsky, cond; Peter Pears ( Oedipus ); Martha Mödl ( Jocasta ); Heinz Rehfuss ( Creon/Messenger ); Otto von Rohr ( Tiresias ); Helmut Krebs ( Shepherd ); Werner Hessenland (nar); Men’s Ch of Cologne RSO; Cologne RSO Read more ACANTA 233694, mono (2 CDs: 90:18)

These performances, sometimes erroneously attributed to October 8, 1951, were actually recorded in the Cologne radio studio the day before. They were the dress rehearsals for the live broadcast the next day and, as the liner notes indicate, the fact that Radio Cologne did not even keep the broadcast tapes tells us that Stravinsky was unhappy with those performances, preferring instead the versions from the day before.

Of course, this version of Oedipus Rex has been available several times before. I bought it on an Odyssey LP back in the early 1970s, and so assumed (wrongly) that it was part of Stravinsky’s mono studio recordings for Columbia. To some extent this was true, as it also appeared on a mono Columbia LP in the early 50s (ML-4644), but there was a difference: For the LP release, the original German narration was replaced by Jean Cocteau in French. The Latin libretto was in fact written by Jean Daniélou of the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals. (Well, why not? Roman Catholics, bear in mind, still have a Latin option for Vatican City ATMs!) Here, the German narration is included. If that bothers you, then of course you won’t want this release, but to me neither German nor French communicate anything without a translation anyway, and Stravinsky always insisted that the narration be performed in the vernacular of each country. This Oedipus Rex also appeared on Archipel 228 in 2007 without the instrumental works, but Oedipus (again with the original German narration) and Apollon musagète appeared on a three-CD Music & Arts compilation (1184) in 2006. The performance of Symphonies of Wind Instruments on that release, however, was a much slower one (10 1/2 minutes as compared to 9 1/2) from Baden-Baden in 1954.

When Art Lange wrote a review of the Music & Arts release for Fanfare , he mentioned the very high quality of the two performances included, citing only the dryness of sound and close miking of the singers in Oedipus as reasons for not making this a first choice. Many critics, he noted, consider James Levine’s digital recording on DG to be the finest, but to my ears Philip Langridge, although possessed of a fine voice, isn’t nearly in the same league with Peter Pears, who just might be the greatest Oedipus ever recorded, and the uncontrollably fluttery voice of mezzo Florence Quivar puts her far out of the running, especially when compared to Martha Mödl who was one of the greatest singing actresses of the 20th century. There is—or was—a 1963 recording once on CD conducted by the late Colin Davis, with Ralph Richardson as narrator, Ronald Dowd as Oedipus, and the superb but little-known Patricia Johnson as Jocasta (Classics for Pleasure 5850082, not to be confused with his later version on Orfeo with Jessye Norman), but that recording is out of print. The reviews I’ve seen for that recording beggar the imagination, comparing the intensity of the performance to Verdi’s Il trovatore ; I can only imagine how fine it is.

I am partial to this recording, and not just because it was my first Oedipus Rex . For one thing—and this may strike you as strange—I think that the dry sound, with its almost percussive quality, actually enhances the guillotine-type chopping chords in the orchestral score and the harsh quality of the music. Oedipus Rex isn’t intended to sound “pretty”; it’s not a relaxing opera, or an entertaining one. It’s meant to challenge the listener, and this recording does so better than any other I have heard.

As for the instrumental performances that precede it, they too are exceptionally fine. Those familiar with Stravinsky’s recordings for American Columbia records doubtless recall how he led those performances, but the Stravinsky of the late 1950s and 1960s was a mellower musician than the one of the teens through the very early 1950s. That Stravinsky conducted his music with a much more rigorous logic and generally pressing tempos—listen, for instance, to his 1929 recording of Le sacre du printemps or his 1931 Symphony of Psalms for examples of what I mean. These performances here of Apollon musagète and the Symphonies of Wind Instruments have the same crisp, slightly icy sound of those earlier performances, and thus I like them very much. (His live performance of the 1951 world premiere of The Rake’s Progress was also conducted in this fashion, but sadly the distant, hissy, distorted sound of the original tapes have left that document in an almost unlistenable state.)

Of course, a total of 90 minutes for a two-CD set is rather short, but since there was nothing else from this concert to include I can’t blame Acanta very much. Normally, their CDs are chock full of music, so in this instance I can let them slide. Aside from a few moments of what we LP collectors used to call “pre-echo” (a moment of echo before a loud chord by orchestra and/or chorus) in the Oedipus Rex, these transfers are also first-rate.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Oedipus rex by Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  Martha Mödl (Mezzo Soprano), Otto Von Rohr (Bass), Heinz Rehfuss (Baritone),
Helmut Krebs (Tenor), Werner Hessenland (Spoken Vocals), Peter Pears (Tenor)
Conductor:  Igor Stravinsky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne West German Radio Symphony Orchestra,  Northwest German Radio Chorus
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1926-1927; France 
Date of Recording: 10/08/1951 
Venue:  Live  Cologne, West Germany 

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