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New York Times Review:

Stravinsky: Finding Religion in the Theater, Drama in the Church

June 2, 2002; by David Schiff

Often called cold and inexpressive, Stravinsky’s music can seem ill suited to the secular space and secular rituals of the concert hall. Its rightful homes may be sacred: the theater of the church and the church of the theater. Robert Craft’s revelatory new recording of three of Stravinsky’s choral monuments, the "Symphony of Psalms," "Les Noces" and "Threni" demonstrates that the theatrical and religious impulses, based on the willing suspension of disbelief, are at the core of Stravinsky’s art.

Stravinsky never hid his religious side, or sides. In public he flaunted his delight in dogmatism as a way, perhaps, of shocking conventional liberal opinion. Mr. Craft, the composer’s longtime assistant, has written that in private Stravinsky was both profoundly religious and deeply superstitious, believing in miracles and the healing power of relics. Although religious music was his main focus from the Mass of 1948 to the "Requiem Canticles" of 1966, his religious sensibility is present, I think, in early works that seem more theatrical than religious.

Take the great moment near the end of "Petrouchka," when the Charlatan holds up the lifeless puppet to show the crowd onstage that the drama it just saw was only made of straw. Neither the crowd nor the ballet audience can credit his materialist account of the miraculous. Though grounded in theatrical illusion, the puppet Petrouchka, who has "died" for love as a type of Christ, is more real than the Charlatan wants to think. The puppet’s ghost rises to mock the Charlatan, asserting the triumph of the spirit over earthly appearances. It is not surprising that 50 years later, in "A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer," Stravinsky would set words of St. Paul: "The evidence of things not seen is faith."

From "The Rite of Spring" on, Stravinsky’s music celebrates communal belief rather than personal emotion or, more precisely, locates the personal within a communal ritual. The three works on the new CD (Koch International Classics KIC-CD-7514), one symphonic, one balletic and one liturgical, all take place in the same spiritual framework. For each work Stravinsky transformed the orchestra to move the listener out of the ordinary concert world into a realm of sanctified sounds.

"Les Noces," famously, is scored for four pianos and percussion, a hugely influential ensemble, which Stravinsky arrived at after many different versions. (Several of them have been recorded.) This percussion orchestra, like no previous ensemble this side of Bali, took the portrayal of a peasant wedding beyond folklore, and way beyond exoticism or ethnography, to glorify the sacrament of marriage. All those drums don’t rob the music of pathos; they heighten it, because they leave the singers with a near-monopoly on sustained tones, broken only by the bells that bring the work to a close.

Similarly in the "Symphony of Psalms," Stravinsky replaced violins and violas with two pianos, because the upper strings would either get in the way of the voices or seem to be commenting on them. The orchestral role here is not commentary but support. The large wind ensemble amplifies the choir like an organ so that, at times, voices and instruments seem to fuse.

The 78-year-old Mr. Craft’s new readings of these two familiar works differ clearly from recordings conducted by Stravinsky, although the younger Mr. Craft was his close collaborator. Some of the differences may keep musicologists busy. In the published score of the "Symphony of Psalms," the bass drum and timpani at the opening are marked mezzo forte, but Mr. Craft’s performance begins with a huge whack, signaling an approach more dramatic and dynamic than the composer’s. Is the score wrong? The orchestral colors and balances throughout (here and in "Threni" Mr. Craft conducts the Philharmonia of London) are more nuanced and varied than in any previous recording, and climactic moments when the high trumpets burst through the choir will thrill even the village atheist.

It would be faint praise to say that Mr. Craft surpasses Stravinsky’s recording of "Les Noces." Despite – or because of? – the presence of Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Samuel Barber and Lukas Foss at the pianos, the performance fell flat. (The players of the International Piano Quartet, in the Craft recording, are not well known.) And the work was sung in English. Russian-language performances of "Les Noces" have become the norm only in recent years, and it is hard to imagine now how Stravinsky ever put up with the misplaced sounds of French or English in his most Russian work.

Mr. Craft’s soloists and choir, the Simon Joly Chorale of London, not only sound comfortable with the Russian but also characterize their singing so that the varied personalities of the large wedding party, and their increasing states of intoxication, emerge clearly. But the particular glory of this recording is the propulsive and precisely colored playing of the Tristan Fry Percussion Ensemble.

These two performances alone should impel a quick purchase. But most important, the disc will give brave listeners a chance to cozy up to "Threni," a notoriously formidable work hardly ever encountered in the concert hall (or, one need hardly add, on the radio). A half-hour of austere 12-tone choral music is not most people’s idea of a good time. And ever since its premiere in 1958, this setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, Stravinsky’s longest liturgical work, has earned little love, some respect and a lot of critical second-guessing. For skeptics, the apparently flagrant evidence of the 76-year-old Stravinsky’s pandering to the serial avant-garde of the time was the ultimate proof of his opportunism and rootlessness. There have been many Charlatans among Stravinsky’s critics.

In the 1950’s Stravinsky put down spiritual roots in Venice, with the premieres of his opera "The Rake’s Progress" at La Fenice and of his partly serial but Venetian-sounding choral work "Canticum Sacrum" in the Byzantine splendor of San Marco. The first performance of "Threni" took place in the Scuola San Rocco, and the work’s dark instrumental colors perfectly match the mystical, somber glow of Tintoretto’s paintings there, particularly the huge "Crucifixion." Stravinsky had wanted to compose a Passion for this site, but he settled on the Lamentations, which are traditionally recited in Roman Catholic churches on Holy Thursday or Good Friday. Whatever his other agendas may have been at the time, "Threni" was clearly intended to be the pinnacle of his liturgical music.

Is it? The "Symphony of Psalms," though a concert work, is certainly hard to top, and among later works, the "Requiem Canticles" has the virtues of brevity and brilliant instrumental episodes. But after 15 listenings to the new recording, I’m almost ready to give the nod to "Threni." Like so much of Stravinsky’s music, it mixes odd elements. Some of it sounds like plainchant (Igorian chant, Stravinsky called it); some of it sounds like Renaissance polyphony; much of it recalls the Russian style of "Les Noces"; and there is even a jazz sonority, a fluegelhorn, which Miles Davis had recently used in the album "Miles Ahead."

Is it? The "Symphony of Psalms," though a concert work, is certainly hard to top, and among later works, the "Requiem Canticles" has the virtues of brevity and brilliant instrumental episodes. But after 15 listenings to the new recording, I’m almost ready to give the nod to "Threni." Like so much of Stravinsky’s music, it mixes odd elements. Some of it sounds like plainchant (Igorian chant, Stravinsky called it); some of it sounds like Renaissance polyphony; much of it recalls the Russian style of "Les Noces"; and there is even a jazz sonority, a fluegelhorn, which Miles Davis had recently used in the album "Miles Ahead."

In lines that accompany the tenor solo near the beginning of the work, the fluegelhorn sounds like a cross between a blues trumpet and a prophetic shofar. Stravinsky also prepared himself for his first entirely 12-tone piece by studying the music and theoretical writings of his fellow Californian expatriate Ernst Krenek, who had composed a 12-tone setting of the Lamentations during World War II. Despite all these warring ingredients, the music has a distinctive sonority, which comes from an unusual assembly of dark, low instruments: alto clarinet, bass clarinet, fluegelhorn, English horn, sarrusophone (a bass oboe), bass trombone, tuba, and piano and harp in their lowest registers. The piece dramatically establishes its tone of harsh penance at the opening with a repeated lashing figure in the strings, like five stinging whip strokes.

The work’s atonal harmony remains the biggest obstacle to its performance, challenging singers and audience alike. Large sections of "Threni" consist of unaccompanied atonal canons, in which the slightest error of intonation can undermine any vestige of harmony. But much of the work suggests tonality, certainly in ways you rarely find in Schoenberg. There are fifths, octaves and triads all over, and many passages anchor 12-tone melodies on sustained pedal tones that establish a point of reference if not a key center.

This recording demonstrates that the work is eminently singable, and perhaps listeners will have to spend as much time with the music as the singers have before they can judge the effectiveness of its idiom. In my experience, those 12-tone chants begin to stick in the memory, and the constant wrestling between atonal and tonal elements, like the conflict in Tintoretto between dark pigments and sparks of divine light, increasingly seems the perfect mirror of the biblical text’s mixture of despair and hope.

The end of the piece, which I still find myself grappling with, does not resolve the tension, much less leave us with some version of the time-stopping conclusions of both the "Symphony of Psalms" and "Les Noces." The choir and soloists join in a brief chorale, accompanied by just a doleful quartet of horns. The chorale seems to end in E flat minor; the horns respond with five chords (there are fives everywhere) leading to A minor. Resolution or stalemate? Stravinsky had posed that question before in the similarly opposed harmonies that end "Petrouchka." Maybe it’s a question of faith.

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