Stravinsky: Canticum Sacrum; Agon; Requiem Canticles

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Stravinsky
LABELS: Hanssler
WORKS: Canticum Sacrum; Agon; Requiem Canticles
PERFORMER: Stella Doufexis (mezzo-soprano), Christian Elsner (tenor), Rudolf Rosen (bass-baritone); SWR Vocal Ensemble, Stuttgart; SWR SO, Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Michael Gielen
CATALOGUE NO: CD 93:226

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Late Stravinsky is often regarded as a tough nut to crack, the composer’s use of serial techniques creating music that sounds forbidding and emotionally inscrutable. Michael Gielen evidently doesn’t share this opinion – his immaculately prepared performances of these works projecting an unexpected refinement of timbre.

The biggest challenge is surmounted in Canticum Sacrum, a work conceived for the ample acoustics of St Marks Church in Venice. In this performance its austere beauty and grandeur really come to life, aided by the outstanding choral contribution from the SWR Vocal Ensemble and an atmospheric recording.

Gielen’s Requiem Canticles is no less affecting, the brief surges of rhythmic power in the Dies irae and Rex tremendae sections countered by the moving plea for deliverance in the Libera me and the mysterious bell sounds that bring the work to a close.

The most immediately accessible piece here is undoubtedly the ballet Agon where Stravinsky juxtaposes tonally based neo-classical material with more abrasive passages that demonstrate the influence of Webern. Gielen’s approach seems more relaxed in execution than in the recordings from Stravinsky and Robert Craft.

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Some may find the interpretation a little too understated in places, but once again Gielen’s subtle balancing of textures and his impeccable pacing of the contrasting movements, not to mention the responsive playing of the orchestra, brings immense rewards. Erik Levi