Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex, Les Noces / Wells, Craft

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Robert Craft leads a thrilling performance of Oedipus Rex--incisive, swift, and as mercilessly inevitable as fate itself. From the opening bars, where those spine-chilling runs...

Robert Craft leads a thrilling performance of Oedipus Rex--incisive, swift, and as mercilessly inevitable as fate itself. From the opening bars, where those spine-chilling runs in the trumpet penetrate the orchestral tutti like screams of horror, you can tell that Craft has every detail of this work (his second recording) well in hand, and so for that matter does the Philharmonia. Anyone who believes that Craft is a dull conductor should listen to this urgent account--from the great choruses (first announcing Jocasta's entrance, with particularly clear timpani and piano ostinatos, and later her death), to the Verdian energy he brings to the Oedipus/Jocasta duet in Act 2. It would have been even better if Craft had followed Stravinsky's lead in his own early-1960s recording: repeat the "Gloria" chorus with the opening Act 2 narration in the middle. It's not a major point, and strictly speaking it's not what's in the score; but it's such marvelous music, and hearing it twice simply doubles the pleasure.

As for the singers, they do well--for the most part. After some initial unsteadiness Martyn Hill settles down to close Act 1 most affectingly, and his singing in Act 2 is very good. Jennifer Lane's Jocasta sounds younger than, say, Jessye Norman's, and her lighter touch gets around the notes better than many a bigger, heavier voice. As Creon, David Wilson-Johnson offers disappointingly approximate pitch in his big Act 1 aria, but he does much better in the slower-moving proclamations of the Messenger. The smaller roles come off without any problems, and the Simon Joly Male Chorus sings more confidently than it did in Craft's Symphony of Psalms. Speaker Edward Fox sounds like a bored Oxford don, but at least he admirably refrains from the annoying histrionics that some bring to the part (particularly in its French-language version). And Craft naturally makes sure that as Stravinsky wanted, Fox pronounces the protagonist's name "Eedipus" as opposed to the chorus' "Oydipus".

Craft's Les Noces--he would with good reason prefer the Russian title "Svadebka"--is simply spectacular. Not only does it feature both superb playing by the four pianos and percussion and marvelous singing by soprano Alison Wells and Martyn Hill, but it's clear that Craft has invested a great deal of care and attention in getting clear articulation of the Russian text. This is critical because, as Craft explains in his notes, the music flows naturally from the speech-rhythms of the words. So many performances of this marvelous piece sound like garbled chanting in an unrecognizable tongue. Craft ensures that for once we really hear the Russian, and just as significantly he balances his forces perfectly so that singers and instrumentalists play off each other with an astonishing degree of rhythmic tension. The resulting explosion of color and energy (you can hear this at any point, but the transition from the third to the fourth scene offers an excellent example) has few if any equals in other performances--including Craft's earlier one on Music Masters. Ideally clear and focused sound completes this very desirable package, given new life thanks to Naxos (these performances previously appeared, differently coupled, on Koch). [2/5/2005]
--David Hurwitz,

Product Description:

  • Release Date: January 18, 2005

  • UPC: 747313249923

  • Catalog Number: 8557499

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: ""

  • Composer: Igor Stravinsky

  • Conductor: Robert Craft

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Fry, International Piano Quartet, Philharmonia Orchestra, Simon Joly Chorus, Simon Joly Male Chorus

  • Performer: Alan Ewing, Alison Wells, Andrew Greenan, David Wilson-Johnson, Edward Fox, Jennifer Lane, Joseph Cornwell, Martyn Hill, Susan Bickley