Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Exquisite, uncompromising late music by Stravinsky

I recently read Edward Said's insightful book On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, and now I keep coming across examples of late works unexpectedly. This new disc from Phi brings together a group of choral works from Stravinsky's final years. It includes two major works, Threni and the Requiem Canticles, that are relatively under-performed and under-recorded, for such important pieces and such a popular composer. Said brings up examples of "...artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction", and there is an aspect of this in some of the works on this superb new album from Philippe Herreweghe, with the Collegium Vocale Gent and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. It's true, for example, of the great Threni, the first of Stravinsky's works to use dodecaphony throughout. The "intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction" here is by no means an indication of any problems the composer had with a new system of composition, since the 12-tone regime is completely integrated into the Stravinsky sound. Rather, the whole project, from text (taken from the Book of Lamentations) to the textures of voices and instruments and its odd structure, with canons and pitch-less chanting, is an expression of Stravinsky's own contradictory personality and religious/spiritual life.

Not that there is a complete lack of consonance or surface beauty. Even within the uncompromising scheme in Threni there are fine moments of consolation, and there are even more in the Requiem Canticles. Stravinsky scrupulously avoids sentimentality, and Herreweghe does the same, but there is a fine feeling one might call human welling up in this music. Here is the exquisite (and exquisitely sung) Exaudi from the Requiem Canticles:

The disc ends with a short motet by Gesualdo, Da Pacem Domine, which is 3 minutes and 20 seconds of pure beauty. It retains the style of the Mantuan master but sounds completely modern. Perhaps this says more about Gesualdo's time travelling magic than Stravinsky's editing, which consisted of the addition of a missing bass line only. In any case, it's a fitting close to an outstanding album, one of the best choral discs of the year.

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