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STRAVINSKY: Threni, Requiem Canticles 

CD Button Landshamer, Wolak; Schmitt, Staveland, Boesch, Roar; Collegium Vocale Gent, Royal Flemish Philharmonic, Herreweghe. Texts and translations. Phi LPH020

Recordings Stravinsky Threnedi Cover 117
Critics Choice Button 1015 

THE MOST ASTONISHING thing about Stravinsky in the mid 1950s, when he left behind the neoclassicism of his middle period and adopted the techniques of Arnold Schoenberg, wasn’t simply his shift toward the musical methodology of his great antipode; it’s that while employing this new language, he retained his own voice. In both of the major vocal offerings on this release, Threni and Requiem Canticles,you can hear the pulsing motor mechanisms and the quirky lyricism that categorized his works from The Firebird on. As Stephen Walsh, in his excellent booklet note for this release, says of the tone rows in Requiem Canticles, “They served Stravinsky mainly as a way of generating notes, which he was then able, as he had always been, to distribute and voice (score) to sound like—Stravinsky.”

Threni, a setting of texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah and the first work Stravinsky created entirely from twelve-tone rows, is very rarely performed. For one thing, its severity will most likely forever keep it from becoming a crowd-pleaser. It is also notoriously difficult to execute, demanding pinpoint intonation of forbiddingly jagged intervals. (Threni’s 1958 Paris premiere, despite the leadership of Pierre Boulez, was such a shambles that the audience jeered.)

That history makes the precision of Philippe Herreweghe’s forces on this disc all the more praiseworthy. When the spiky vocal lines, exactly intoned, come together in unexpected consonances, the effect is like hearing synapses fire. Interestingly, the performance is quicker, crisper, more “Stravinskian” than the one on the composer’s own 1959 recording, as if the intervening decades had bred a generation of solo and choral singers at last able to deal with the work’s stringent demands. It is certainly difficult to imagine more accomplished readings than those delivered by the sextet of vocal soloists here—including soprano Christina Landshamer, mezzo-soprano Ewa Wolak, tenor Magnus Staveland and baritone Florian Boesch—and the work particularly highlights the bracing lyric tenor of Maximillian Schmitt and the sonorous bass of David Soar. 

Requiem Canticles is an even greater revelation. Its nine short movements seem to compress a lifetime of work into fifteen minutes. The “Libera Me” movement, with its vocal quartet intoning the text against a scrum of choric speech, conjures otherworldly forces as thoroughly as Verdi’s treatment of the same text and here becomes a one-minute tour de force for the Collegium Vocale Gent. The instrumentalists of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic play as if embarked on a voyage of musical discovery. Boesch gives the “Tuba mirum” a soulfulness worthy of a Schubert lied, and Wolak’s contralto-like mezzo makes the “Lacrimosa” seem like a message from on high. 

The disc contains two brief bookends—an a cappella serial setting of T. S. Eliot’s “The Dove Descending Breaks the Air,” from Four Quartets, and Stravinsky’s completion of Carlo Gesualdo’s motet Da Pace Domine,showing how musical inspiration can echo through the centuries.  —Fred Cohn 

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