STRAVINSKY: Oedipus Rex. Babel. A Sermon, a Narrative, and a Prayer. Zvezdolikiy.
Edward Fox, speaker; Martyn Hill, tenor (Oedipus); Jennifer Lane, mezzo (Jocasta); David Wilson-Johnson, bass-baritone (Creon and Messenger); Andrew Greenan, bass (Tiresias); Simon Joly Male Chorus; Gregg Smith Singers; The Philharmonia; Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble; Orchestra of St. Luke's/Robert Craft, cond.
Koch 3-7477 (B) {DDD} TT: 78:29

Annoying. Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, while not among his most famous works, has been plundered by other composers for years. One can easily discern its influence on such musicians as Milhaud, Honegger, Poulenc, and Martinu, but the list goes on. Essentially, Stravinsky showed composers how to extend the expressive possibilities of his brand of neoclassicism beyond the lightness of Mozart to the grandeur of Handel and Bach. The work burns at high inspiration. The extremely self-critical Stravinsky once wrote that he loved every note of it, including the "Warner Bros. fanfares" (his phrase) in the final scene. I happen to love every note of it as well. I discovered it early on in my serious listening career as part of my enthusiasm for high-school Latin -- the old Columbia LP with the composer conducting and Jean Cocteau as the speaker. The very first sound of the piece -- "Spectateurs!" of Cocteau -- cracked like a whip and quickly entered my personal musical iconography.

Stravinsky conceived of the work as a series of static scenes -- "tableau," if you will -- and indeed made Cocteau rewrite (with his help) the libretto twice, to remove any hint of conventional drama or a "linked" plot. Cocteau subjected the result to further pruning. We really do get separate fragments, separate moments in the story. All linkage comes from an equally abrupt narration, which provides absolutely the minimum you need to know. Stravinsky, who wanted a libretto in Latin, got one Jean Daniélou of the College of Cardinals to translate Cocteau's French. Stravinsky asks that the narration to be spoken in the language of the audience. I don't really believe his motive was chiefly to familiarize the audience with the plot, but to provide yet another distancing effect -- a jarring contrast between the archaism of Latin and a modern language.

E. E. Cummings got the job of translating the narration into English. Apparently, Stravinsky and Craft hated the result, but their criticisms show that at least one of them had fairly leaden ears and very little idea how poetry works in English. They came up with something as hilariously wooden as Ben Franklin's translation of the Book of Job. Indeed, it reminds me of the typically constipated prose of the New York Review of Books, or Craft's own prose, for that matter. Every possibly exciting synapse in continuity is plastered over, in the name of not confusing the listener. The dullest word is substituted for Cummings's choice. For example, Craft-Stravinsky opens the narration this way:

"Ladies and Gentlemen. You are about to hear a version in Latin of King Oedipus, based on the dramatic tragedy by Sophocles. I will recount the story as it proceeds. Oedipus unwittingly contends with supernatural powers, those unsleeping deities who watch us from a world beyond death. At his birth a snare was laid for him and you will hear how the snare closes in.

"The drama now begins. The city of Thebes is prostrate. A plague has broken out. The chorus implores Oedipus to save his city, as once before he did by solving the riddle of the Sphinx. Oedipus vows to deliver his people again."

Compare this to Cummings:

"The version of Oedipus Rex which you are about to hear will be in Latin. To avoid any difficulty in following the language or recalling the story, and also because in the form of an opera-oratorio there remains only the outline of the scenes, I shall recount Sophocles's tragedy stage by stage. King Oedipus, without realizing it, is contending with the watchful forces from the realms beyond death. On the day of his birth, they laid a trap for him. We shall show how he is caught in it.

This is the tragedy: Thebes is demoralized. After the ravages of the Sphinx, the plague! The chorus begs Oedipus to save the town. Oedipus overcame the Sphinx. He promises:"

Cummings knows all the standard tricks of tightening and enlivening prose (dynamic verbs, avoiding the passive voice). The interesting thing is that Cummings comes far closer to the rhythms and meaning of Cocteau's French as well. Notice how the second paragraph just whips along, compared to the cream-cheese plod of Stravinsky-Craft. The dynamic duo also render Tiresias's prophecy as "The assassin of the king is a king." Cummings: "Who murdered the king is a king." "Assassin" for the Cummings's vigorous subject-active verb lets the air out of the sentence in a hurry. One can easily find many more clunkers. Craft actually points out some of his own in his liner notes, under the delusion that they "improve" things. The concern for continuity strikes me as supremely misguided in the first place and poorly carried out besides.

Even so, the narration is the least necessary part of the oratorio. However, (I assume) Craft's tampering with the Latin text, especially with the pronunciation, is simply half-baked. Craft claims that he merely follows Stravinsky's preferences. "Oydipus" instead of "Eddipus" -- classical rather than church Latin, in other words. But Craft doesn't carry through consistently. The diphthong ae, for example, comes out as a near-Canadian "eh" rather than the classical "ay" (as in "ay, caramba"). However, Stravinsky apparently never preferred classical Latin pronunciation enough to actually record it that way. I strongly suspect Craft rides his hobby-horse here.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it certainly matters to Craft, who keeps making a point of it. It jars on me, perhaps because I've come accustomed to a certain performance tradition, and Craft's inconsistency in performance and weak attempts to justify it in his liner notes to the CD fail to convince me. I'm left with the question of why he couldn't keep his mitts off.

Fortunately, the music can take a lot. It forgives a sloppy performance. It can even triumph over a vampiric performance which tries to suck out the music's life. From the opening monumental plea of the chorus, to the steady beat of the kettledrums tuned a minor third apart, to Jocasta's arias, to the majesty, horror, and tenderness of the final scene, Oedipus grips you with ideas so simple that they almost seem discovered, rather than composed. The aforementioned upward minor third plays a big role, as does the diminished-seventh chord (three minor thirds superimposed -- eg, E - G - B-flat - D-flat on the piano). There's also a do-sol-mi-do downward arpeggio associated with Creon. Of course, Stravinsky makes magic with these things, always coming up with the unexpected and, at the same time, the inevitable.

Stravinsky wrote and spoke often about his own music. Many of his remarks, I'm convinced, purposely mislead. Stravinsky stressed the "objectivity" of his music and of Oedipus in particular. In his Norton lectures, however, Leonard Bernstein may have discovered the musical source of this "opera-oratorio." He argues an extremely convincing case for Verdi's Aida, from the very first notes of the chorus. The insight changed my view of Oedipus. It's not only grand and imposing (mainly in the choruses), but, in the solo arias, psychologically acute. For example, notice how increasingly agitated Jocasta's music becomes as she sees more and more of the truth.

There have been three great recordings of Oedipus: Stravinsky's with Cocteau and the Cologne Orchestra, Stravinsky's "official" recording with Columbia/CBS/Sony, and Colin Davis's EMI account with Sadler's Wells. All three are out of print. The first -- and the most raggedly performed -- has a raw, jagged power. Listening to it is like playing with knives. Stravinsky's later recording is better executed and a little heavy, which the music can stand. Colin Davis is the joker in the pack. One thinks of him now as a Sibelius - Berlioz specialist, but he very early made a reputation as a superb Stravinsky conductor. This recording has everything: granitic monumentality, nerves, crackling rhythm, wonderful soloists, and Ralph Richardson as the speaker. Apparently, EMI has never seen fit to transfer it to CD.

Where does Craft fit in? The first word that comes to mind is "decorous." Certainly, the playing and singing are right at the top, even though Martyn Hill doesn't have the vocal weight for Oedipus. But the pitches, the intonation, of all the singers are incredibly exciting. Textures are very clear. Instrumentalists play cleanly. Lines I've not heard before come forward in this account. On the other hand, it positively drips with good taste. One could invite the vicar for tea. There's also significant rhythmic waywardness in Jocasta's first aria. I don't know whether to blame Jennifer Lane or Craft. However, the ensemble manages, by some miracle, to follow. Still, I find Craft's reading a great improvement over Ozawa's. At least it has a point of view, even though I disagree with it.

Stravinsky wrote Babel in the mid-Forties, early on in his stay in the U. S. It was part of an odd project. Nathaniel Shilkret commissioned several composers - Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Milhaud, Toch, Tansman, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Shilkret himself -- to write music to episodes in Genesis. I dimly recall this was going to be part of a film project, and I don't know if the film was ever made. Stravinsky calls for chamber ensemble, speaker, and chorus. Most of the rhythmic life of the piece comes from the instruments. The music for chorus is almost recitative. There's a hypnotic, stop-time quality to it, familiar to those who know Stravinsky's Mass. It's also a tribute to Stravinsky's mastery of the neoclassical idiom, since there's a lot of Don Giovanni here as well, in the chamber ensemble's music, turned to such different ends, however, it remains largely below surface. The performance has all the virtues of Craft's Oedipus, but there's little practical difference among accounts of Babel. Again, the recording's strengths are clarity of ensemble, pitch accuracy, and even rhythmic liveliness (sporadic in the Oedipus). However, if you have Stravinsky's Sony recording, you probably don't need this one.

We can say the same for Zvezdolikiy (also known as Le roi des étoiles). Craft talks about the "orientalia" of the opening, which I don't see at all. I do, however, find great similarity between this opening and that for Firebird. Craft and his forces do well, but not significantly better than Stravinsky himself or Pierre Boulez. As far as I'm concerned, you wouldn't get any of these discs for Babel or Zvezdolikiy.

I know of only two recordings of the late A Sermon, a Narrative, and a Prayer, settings of St. Paul, the stoning of St. Stephen, and a prayer by Thomas Dekkar. Stravinsky leads the CBS/Sony recording. For me, however, Craft improves on that recording in every way. If you make the choice, Craft I think the clear winner. Craft lays the plan of the piece out like nobody's business. The players are far more at ease with the music than their L. A. counterparts (recorded in 1962), and Craft once again has gotten amazingly clear and precise playing.

Craft's liner notes are -- predictably, I'm afraid -- terrible. For some strange reason, he wants to tell you less about Stravinsky's music than about his proof that he's read Sophocles, Seneca, Voltaire, and Boccaccio. Little of it seems close to the point of the music -- that is, the reason most of us bought the CD in the first place. His arguments for this or that of his decision have more holes than a Krispy Kremes.

The sound is quite good. Balance flatters the vocal soloists, without pushing the instruments too far into the background.

S.G.S. (March 2007)