The One and Only Igor: Gergiev conducts Les Noces and Oedipus Rex

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Bronislava Nijinska in Stravinsky's Les Noces

Bronislava Nijinska in Stravinsky's Les Noces

Igor Stravinsky, Les Noces
(sung in Russian)

Mlada Khudoley (soprano), Olga Savova (mezzo), Alexander Timchenko (tenor), Andrei Serov (bass), Svetlana Smolina, Yulia Zaichkina, Alexander Mogilevsky, Maxim Mogilevsky (pianos)

Oedipus Rex
(sung in Latin)

Sergei Semishkur (Oedipus), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Jocasta), Evgeny Nikitin (Creon & Messenger), Mikhail Petrenko (Tiresias), Alexander Timchenko (shepherd) & Gérard Depardieu (narrator)

Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus, Valery Gergiev, conductor

Stravinsky to the rescue.

In a recent interview the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, remarked that Igor Stravinsky pulled off the greatest camouflage in the history of music. He was referring to the composer’s lifelong stand that music expresses no emotions, indeed, expresses nothing except sound. Behind this mask, Salonen said, lies a man of deep feeling whose music is often as moving as any ever written. I began to think about Stravinsky and his camouflage, which has always baffled me. How could such glittering creations, each commanding your attention, whether as a shout across the primordial steppes or a murmur like the tick-tock of a mantel clock in the Princesse de Polignac’s salon, be about nothing?

Salonen, himself an aloof modernist, declared that he doesn’t believe Stravinsky’s pose for a minute. Others have gone much farther, especially the eminent Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who has mounted a one-man campaign to rescue Stravinsky from his emotional exile (the Communists would have dubbed it cosmopolitanism), spicing up two landmark masterpieces from the Twenties, Les Noces (1923) and Oedipus Rex (1927) with Slavic soul. The composer might have shuddered, yet who can tell why. Because he really did believe in mechanical performances best executed by machines? Or because his disguise has been ripped away, exposing a quivering sensitivity?

Before getting to the details of the new recording, let’s consider who actually is rescuing whom. As a music-mad teenager, I could tell that Stravinsky was from a different planet – I had just collided with the Firebird Suite in a transporting performance by the young Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic (a recording still available on Sony fifty years later) . Salonen makes clear why Stravinsky sounds only like Stravinsky. There are several elements that can be tweaked out by the dissecting mind. Stravinsky’s music doesn’t announce a theme and go on to develop it. Instead, he tends to take the seed of an idea – a chord, a rhythmic cell, the curve of a folk melody – which then grows in a crooked way, to judge by conventional sonata form. Instead of exploring where this seed might lead by amplifying it and delving into the harmonies it suggests, Stravinsky prefers to repeat. He repeats mechanically and often. He adds driving motor rhythms, overlaps one seed idea with another in cubist fashion. He deals in planes of sound and clashes of color whose outlines are as crisp as diamonds. Any lover of the Rite of Spring and Petrushka will recognize this description. When the poor Shrovetide marionette is wailing in his death struggle through a piercing E-flat clarinet, down below the double basses are churning away in a totally different rhythm and key. Even in his subversively discreet neoclassical period, Stravinsky is a fractal composer, letting eddies of chaos develop into alarmingly beautiful patterns.

This most original of composers cared not a toss about being original, at one level at least. Salonen points out that Stravinsky rarely invented the techniques that he sprang upon a shocked world. Most often, he pulled a piece of sheet music out of his library and fiddled around on the piano over a snatch of melody or a harmonic passage until it was “Stravinsky-ized”. Arguably the most haunting wail in all of music is the keening cry of the bassoon that opens the Rite. It is so peculiarly Stravinsky-ized that it hardly matters that the tune itself was borrowed from his beloved – and often exploited – trove of Russian folksongs.

If you pull a portrait together that captures his detachment, coolness, masks, disregard for the “right” way to compose, a flamboyant talent for color, and complete equanimity about stealing like a magpie from anyone’s nest, you get an artist who needs no rescuing. Stravinsky was the rescuer. No one before or since threw out so much musical convention in one go. Stravinsky was the abhorred vacuum that Nature had to fill. In some schools of Yoga there is a practice called “Neti, neti“, which means “not this, not that“. It’s the path to enlightenment by negation, based on throwing out all that isn’t real until nothing is left but pure light. We don’t have a snapshot of the day when Stravinsky decided not to resolve the dominant to the tonic, not to group the orchestra into neat choirs of strings, woodwinds, and brass, not to adhere to one key in the same measure, not to obey bar lines, and not to do a hundred other things that conservatory students were cramming into their brains. Stravinsky pursued the path of negation in silence, as all true yogis must.

His quick-change art, which maddened critics who couldn’t keep up with him, was immediately compared to that other chameleon-of-all-colors, Picasso. Their kinship is undeniable, and yet Picasso proved himself a master at figurative painting before he erupted like a volcano of innovation (he used to boast that at the age of four he could draw like Raphael) while Stravinsky, having absorbed the rudiments of conservative style in his early, uninspiring Symphony in E-flat, immediately went on to obey Diaghilev’s “Etonne moi!” The astonishments never ceased, up to the day when the eternal exile, at 88, watched animal documentaries on TV in his modest Hollywood ranch house and bent his fingers, now blackened with disease, to the exercise of copying out Bach inventions. The rescue was complete.

 Stravinsky's House in West Hollywood. Photo Michael Miller.

Stravinsky's House in West Hollywood. Photo Michael Miller.

Some time ago Salonen’s personal assistant noticed a house for sale on N. Weatherly Drive and commented that the address seemed familiar. It was Stravinsky’s old house, and it was being foreclosed on. Salonen went to the showing with his wife and the pianist Paul Crossley, who was playing with the LAPO that week. Once inside they discovered that the interior had hardly been touched since Vera Stravinsky sold the house; there had been only one owner, who did no updating. The imprint of Stravinsky’s two pianos was still visible in the carpet. The day bed where guests slept when they were too drunk to drive home filled a corner of the studio.

Salonen became excited and wanted to buy the house then and there. His wife got worried. The house was on a steep hill and was rather too small to raise children in. As Salonen sat on the floor of the music room, dreaming, Crossley came up to him and said, “Imagine trying to write a note in this room. Isn’t life hard enough already?”

Salonen thanked him, and they left.

* * *

Now on to the recording. The great glory of this new Mariinsky release is a stunning performance of Les Noces. I had seen a video of the company’s staged ballet, itself a marvel of precision and rhythmic dynamism. Usually Les Noces works best with visuals, because the percussive effect of four pianos can become wearing. There is also the problem of the high-lying vocal parts, modeled on Russian folk singing, that almost always comes across as abrasive, on the verge of screaming. All such considerations can now be put in the past. Gergiev’s new version sounds as naturally Russian and accessible as Boris Godunov. The solo singers are to the manner born — there is no screaming. Indeed, a new dimension of human warmth has been revealed. Moment by moment one marvels at how enjoyable this wedding is, how full of emotions that were concealed in performances where the performers were struggling just to avoid mistakes. The propulsive ostinato rhythms are unforgiving of even one misplaced eighth note. Gergiev’s singers and musicians are undaunted and come through with a soaring, exhilarating reading.

I already had high expectation for Les Noces, but in concert and at the Met Gergiev’s Oedipus Rex, a favorite work of his, had been rather coarse, and the main characters in Sophocles’ tragedy sounded lumpen in the typical Soviet vein (no aristocrats, please, we’re Communists). For this recording the whole conception has risen. We get one f the most riveting accounts on disc, fronted by superb orchestral playing and a compelling, at times lusty men’s chorus. The narrator delivers Jean Cocteau’s arch French narration with real conviction. Thus a powerful framework has been set up for the entry of the two most important elements — Oedipus himself and his queen, Jocasta.

I doubt that I will ever hear an Oedipus sung as tragically as that of Peter Pears, but tenor Sergei Semishkur is first rate. His voice is strong without being too beefy and operatic; the tone is firm and appealing; his dramatic involvement is impressive, even if he can’t quite find a wrenching catharsis. The Jocasta of Ekaterina Semenchuk won’t be so immediately appealing to everyone. The voice is full, mature, and plummy (try not to think of Buttercup in H.M.S. Pinafore), giving the impression of a contralto instead of the usual coloratura mezzo. There’s no doubt that she is powerful, even marmoreal. Stravinsky might even have preferred such archetypal immobility. As far as the treacherous runs and intervals in Jocasta’s great aria (often compared to early Verdi; one thinks of Abigaille in Nabucco), Semenchuk is spectacularly successful. I would compare her favorably to the equally powerful Martha Mödl in Stravinsky’s old mono recording, which also features Pears’s best portrayal. As for the secondary characters, the Creon of Evgeny Nikitin could hardly be improved upon, and we get star casting for Tiresias (doubling the Messenger) with Mikhail Petrenko. But these are Mariinsky standouts all around.

In short, Gergiev has achieved an outright triumph, aided by first-rate sonics, which I heard in two-channel stereo rather than the SACD layer. A must listen for anyone who loves these two masterpieces.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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