Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Stravinsky
LABELS: LSO Live
ALBUM TITLE: Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex
WORKS: Oedipus Rex; Apollon musagete
PERFORMER: Jennifer Johnston, Stuart Skelton, Gidon Saks, Fanny Ardant, Alexander Ashworth, David Shipley; Monteverdi Choir; LSO/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: LSO 0751

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Oedipus rex is a notoriously difficult work to bring off even with a staging to help, never mind without. For all Stravinsky’s pronouncements along the lines that ‘music expresses only itself’, his hybrid opera-oratorio does much more than that. The music’s surface objectivity becomes, in a stage context, a way of presenting the appalling tragedy of Oedipus and Jocasta in terms of ironic detachment – a device in itself signifying how the characters (and, it’s implied, we in the audience) are mere arbitrary playthings of the indifferent gods. But how do you convey this successfully on a concert platform, especially in the atmosphere-draining dryness of the Barbican Hall’s acoustic?

Strong singing of Stravinsky’s taxing vocal lines would be a good start, but tenor Stuart Skelton’s Oedipus and bass-baritone Gidon Saks’s Creon offer little beyond professional accuracy. The work has already reached its halfway point when Jocasta first appears, and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston’s superb interpretation lifts the whole performance up a couple of notches. David Shipley’s Tiresias and Alexander Ashworth’s Messenger also contribute vividly, as does the Monteverdi Choir’s ultra-clear delivery of the Latin text. But John Eliot Gardiner’s conducting somehow misses the work’s elusive power; and Fanny Ardant’s declamation of the narrator’s linking passages in French evidently relates to international CD sales, rather than to Barbican concert-goers.

The beautiful strings-only ballet score Apollon musagète has the LSO offering classy weight of tone, but Gardiner’s approach conveys little of the work’s classical poise and élan – the sense that at heart, this is music to be danced to.

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Malcolm Hayes