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Hyperion Records

LSO0751 - Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex & Apollon musagète
Recording details: May 2013
Barbican, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Nicholas Parker
Engineered by Jonathan Stokes
Release date: April 2014
Total duration: 79 minutes 13 seconds

'With its unflagging direction, its strong sense of drama and its mostly impeccable singing, Gardiner is a serious contender for anyone wanting a version to put alongside the classic versions' (International Record Review)

'Factor in tight, crisp playing by the LSO, the fine Jocasta of Jennifer Johnston and subtle string colouring in Apollon Musagète, and it adds up to a fine celebration' (Yorkshire Post)

'It makes sense that the conductor John Eliot Gardiner, a pioneer of the early music movement, and the impressive Monteverdi Choir, founded by Mr Gardner in 1964, would have a special feeling for the old-world musical elements of Oedipus Rex, all of which come through on this gripping recording taken from live performances with the London Symphony Orchestra last year' (The New York Times)

Oedipus Rex & Apollon musagète
Pas d'action  [4'27]
Pas de deux  [4'38]
Apothéose  [3'33]

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts the LSO on this his first release for LSO Live, Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Apollon musagète. Also featured on the release are the Gentlemen of the Monteverdi Choir, considered one of the world’s leading choirs, and a mix of international and home-grown soloists including Jennifer Johnston and Stuart Skelton. French actress Fanny Ardant, who has appeared in over 50 motion pictures, takes the role of narrator.

Oedipus Rex and Apollon musagète are both ancient Greek themed works by Stravinsky. The rich string harmonies and textures in the ballet score of Apollon musagète are pleasantly mesmerizing, expressive and calmly indulgent. In contrast, the dramatic and hauntingly compelling opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex is composed of an assemblage of monumental and powerful sounds, such as playful woodwinds, robust brass and agile strings, with magnificent vocals from the choir and soloists.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The idea for ‘an opera in Latin on the subject of a tragedy of the ancient world, with which everyone would be familiar’, was essentially Stravinsky’s own, as is proved by a letter to Jean Cocteau of October 1925, setting out the terms of their collaboration. Hitherto all his sung theatre works except Pulcinella—where the Italian text was part of the received material—had been in Russian, which may seem natural enough until we remember that Stravinsky always knew perfectly well that the audience for these works would be French. The Latin text was apparently a distancing device, perhaps also with a sacred dimension, as with the Latin of the Mass, or the Old Slavonic of the Russian Orthodox liturgy in which Stravinsky had been brought up.

The eventual form of Oedipus Rex suggests Baroque oratorio as a model, with its alternation of recitative, aria and chorus. But his whole attitude to the classical material has to be understood in the light of his own recent music. Since Mavra (1922), he had composed only instrumental music, entirely for piano or wind. Nearly every work was accompanied by some kind of manifesto (not always penned by Stravinsky but reflecting his ideas), urging the virtues of form as an expressive category, denouncing such conventional Romantic concepts as interpretation and a phrased espressivo. On the contrary, cold, rational forms were seen as a virtue of classical thought. Oedipus Rex, with its statue-like, masked dramatis personae and two-dimensional setting, was simply this kind of neoclassicism put on to the stage. Only, Stravinsky’s musical models are much more varied than before: shades of Verdi (in the opening chorus), Bellini (in Jocasta’s aria), perhaps Berlioz (in the bucolic music of the Shepherd and the Messenger), and even Puccini’s Turandot (in the final scene). Stravinsky himself called the work a ‘Merzbild’—the Dada term for a picture made out of junk—and was defensive about some of its stylistic excesses.

The music is linked by a Speaker, who pretends to explain the plot in the language of the audience, though in fact Cocteau’s text obscures nearly as much as it clarifies. Stravinsky came to loathe these speeches for their obscurity and implied snobbishness, but they are a crucial aspect of the work’s dramatic effect. Some additional explanation may be helpful.

The Oracle warned King Laius of Thebes that he would be killed by his own son; so, when a son was born, Laius and his wife, Jocasta, exposed him on a mountainside, piercing his feet with leather thongs. There he was found and brought up by a shepherd of the Corinthian King Polybus. Polybus, being childless, adopted the boy and named him; later, Oedipus was taunted about his parentage, and, when he consulted the Oracle, was told that he would kill his father and marry his mother. To avoid these crimes, and naturally taking them to refer to Polybus and his wife, he left Corinth for Thebes, and on the way killed an old man he met at a crossroads, not recognising him as King Laius. At Thebes he solved the riddle of the Sphinx, who was laying waste the city, winning thereby the throne and the hand of the now-widowed Queen Jocasta. It is crucial that, even when he begins to suspect that he is the murderer of King Laius and thus the cause of the plague in Thebes, Oedipus still does not realise he is Laius’ son. He simply believes his crime to be usurping the marital bed of a man he has killed. Finally, the listener needs to know that when, after the scene with Jocasta, ‘the witness to the murder emerges from the shadow’, this is not the Messenger but the Shepherd, who had been the one member of Laius’ retinue to escape. On returning to Thebes and finding Oedipus installed as King, he had requested transfer to remote pastures, but has now returned at Oedipus’ summons for the inquest into Laius’ death.

Oedipus Rex was first performed at the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt in Paris in May 1927 as part of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes season, but as a concert performance. Stravinsky himself conducted. The first staging was in Vienna on 23 February 1928, followed two nights later by the famous Kroll Opera production in Berlin, conducted by Klemperer.

Completed in January 1928, Apollo was the first ballet Stravinsky wrote for a company other than Diaghilev’s, and his first work to a commission from the United States. The invitation from the Library of Congress specified a pantomime for three or four dancers and small orchestra on a subject of the composer’s choice, to which Stravinsky responded with the first of his abstract, plot-less, ballets and his first ever work for string orchestra. When he started composing in July 1927, he seems to have envisaged parts for harp and piano as well, and he already knew the subject, if not the details, of the scenario—which, indeed, seem never to have assumed great importance for him, if we are to believe his remark in a Paris interview that Apollo contains no ‘argument,’ and that ‘this is the key to the mystery of Terpsichore’.

Those who commission works of art usually have some mental picture of what might result, no doubt more often disappointed than not. But Apollo must surely have come as one of the biggest artistic surprises in history. Here was the great bogeyman of modern music, still best known for The Rite of Spring but with a recent reputation among the culturally up-to-date for steely formalism backed up by an arid theoretical anti-expressionism, suddenly coming up with a melting, graceful score for strings that sounded suspiciously like an attempt to revive the French Romantic ballet of Adam and Delibes. At the time, Oedipus Rex was nearing completion; would this astonishing mixture of Handel and Verdi have made Apollo any easier to predict? No easier, perhaps, than to have predicted Stravinsky’s next work, The Fairy’s Kiss, a ballet on themes by Tchaikovsky, after hearing Apollo.

Technically, if not aesthetically, Apollo fits well enough into the period that began with the little opera Mavra (1921–22) and the wind Octet (1922–23)—a period self-consciously concerned with the relation between form and expression. The very subject of the ballet, such as it is, is a dramatised version of this issue. Apollo, the leader of the Muses and god of formal perfection, is born, grows to maturity, and enters Parnassus at the head of the Muses, Calliope, Polyhymnia and Terpsichore: poetry, mime and dance. He and they perform a series of statuesque but vigorous dances, modelled on the formulae of French Romantic ballet, but plainly arguing the virtues of classical restraint and artifice in the modes of intellectual, emotional and physical expression.

Stravinsky claimed that the rhythms of Apollo were based on the idea of versification. Each dance is a variation on an iambic pattern, perhaps in the manner of Paul Valéry’s vers donné, where a whole poem may be made out of minute fluctuations against an unvarying background metre. Such variations had always been fundamental to Stravinsky’s rhythmic technique; but in Apollo they occur discreetly, without the violent emphasis of his earlier ballet. This careful presentation of method is typical of his neoclassical phase. He also claimed that Apollo was important for its sense of long line, already a feature of Mavra and the Octet, but accentuated by the sustaining powers of the string orchestra. And while this is chiefly about melody, it also breeds rich counterpoint, notably in the four-part canon of the ‘Pas d’action’.

Stephen Walsh © 2013

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