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 Recording of the Week  Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex from the LSO

Last year the conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner celebrated his seventieth birthday. As part of the festivities, he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in concerts of two pieces by Stravinsky, which have now been released on LSO Live.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

The main work on the disc is Oedipus Rex, based on Sophocles’s tragic tale of patricide and accidental incest. It is described as an “opera-oratorio” in two acts, and presents a Latin text with connecting episodes of narration in French (with a text by Jean Cocteau).

Providing this narration is the veteran French film actress, Fanny Ardant (perhaps best-known for portraying Maria Callas in Franco Zeffirelli’s 2002 film, Callas Forever). I did wonder beforehand whether on disc the more extended passages of narration might become tiring with repeated listens, but her remarkably husky delivery of Cocteau’s text was so integral to the drama of the piece that it had me enthralled every time.

Gardiner gives us an extremely punchy performance, especially when it comes to the trumpets, who really bite and snarl when required, and yet are impeccably triumphant in their fanfares at the start of the epilogue. There’s also some impressive woodwind playing, particularly during the manic episode in Act Two as Jocasta attempts to warn Oedipus of the dangers of trusting in oracles.

Jocasta is impressively sung by Jennifer Johnston, and Gidon Saks takes the small role of Oedipus’s brother-in-law (and uncle!), Creon, making the most of his one aria with fabulous declamation giving way to a nicely conspiratorial tone as he demands that the murder of Oedipus’s father be avenged. Oedipus himself is sung by the Australian tenor, Stuart Skelton, who copes with the high tessitura admirably, and is most affecting in his exchanges with Creon and Jocasta.

For me, though, the real stars of this recording are the gentlemen of the Monteverdi Choir. Their diabolical singing as they describe Jocasta in her chamber, tearing out her hair, is excitingly done, and the very end of the piece, as they bid farewell to Oedipus, is quietly terrifying. As they gradually fade away, accompanied by menacingly insistent timpani strokes, the effect is chilling indeed.

For the concerts, the chorus wore face-paint and costume, and the lights in the Barbican were dimmed to such an extent that the players had to use individual pit lights on their stands. That sense of theatricality comes across vividly even on this audio recording. Full of sudden shifts of mood and style, the piece can sometimes seem like an awkwardly-cobbled-together collection of episodes, but I was completely convinced by every aspect of this performance.

Continuing the Greek theme is the disc’s other work, the 1928 ballet, Apollon musagète. Scored for string orchestra, the piece is a world apart from Stravinsky’s earlier ballets such as The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, and even more than in Oedipus represents Stravinsky in full-on neo-Classical mode. The ballet is broadly presented as a series of variations, in which Apollo instructs three of his Muses in their arts, and then leads them to their home, Mount Parnassus. The LSO strings play with their customary warmth, and there’s a refined, graceful solo from leader Tomo Keller at the start of the second tableau. It’s a charming piece, and makes an excellent palate-cleanser after such a thrillingly explosive Oedipus.

Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex & Apollon Musagète

Gentlemen of the Monteverdi Choir & London Symphony Orchestra, Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC