Notes and Editorial Reviews
Oedipus Rex. Apollon musagète
John Eliot Gardiner, cond; Jennifer Johnston (
); Stuart Skelton (
); Gidon Sacks (
); Fanny Ardent (narrator); Monteverdi Ch; London SO
LSO LIVE 0751 (SACD: 79:13) Live: London 4/25/2013 and 5/01/2013
We are accustomed to rich, dark performances of Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio. This one has a Neoclassical touch: plenty of power, but with thinner orchestral and choral textures than usual—even though the booklet lists 12 tenors and 12 basses, and the LSO is near full strength (14/12/10/9/6). After an initial shock, I came to appreciate the greater detail that emerged. The chorus’s enunciation is excellent and it is never drowned out by the orchestra. The dry acoustics of London’s Barbican also contribute, for better and for worse. Clarity is the essence of this performance and recording; every timpani stroke is heard, through the greatest climaxes. SACD doesn’t add much to the clean, clear CD, but surround sound enlivens the proceedings considerably.
The solo vocals run along the same lines; it’s not clear how much is due to the voices themselves and how much the interpretation. Jennifer Johnston has a surprisingly light mezzo for the role of Jocasta, especially when compared to the likes of Tatiana Troyanos, Florence Quivar, and even soprano Jessye Norman. Nothing in the score denies this; it’s just that we are used to heavyweight voices in the role. Johnston’s soft presence allows us to hear much woodwind detail that is often buried. Stuart Skelton’s tenor is also very light; he sounds weak in Oedipus’s opening monologue. We’ve encountered this before: Unmiked soloists in Barbican live performances don’t come through well on LSO Live discs. Since the performance is so laid back (although never slow), he doesn’t have to strain, which saves us a few grimaces. As the messenger reveals the news of Oedipus’s lineage, messenger and chorus engage in some intriguing antiphonal (polychoral) singing. Once again, unexpected instrumental lines emerge from this recording, denying expectations. An amazingly jazzy beat takes over the final scene.
Fanny Ardent’s deep, gutsy narration is in French; one thinks of Edith Piaf in her late years. The composer wanted it to be in the language of the audience, in this case a British one. Perhaps the London Symphony was visualizing CD sales of a work more popular in France than in England. The full text is printed in side-by-side French/Latin and English, in a legibly sized font.
John Eliot Gardiner’s reading of
drains the sweetness—but not the smoothness—from the strings, making the music sound, well, Apollonian: “clear, harmonious, and restrained” (
The American Heritage College Dictionary
This is a strange performance of
. It is also fascinating. One could never recommend it as the basic recording in a collection, but everyone should hear it. You may think it weird, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you hated it; I’m very conflicted. Oddest of all is that the work sounds more like Stravinsky than ever.
FANFARE: James H. North