Polyeucte Overture *
* BBC Symphony Orchestra
Yan Pascal Tortelier
Nicole Tibbels (reciter)
Paul Groves (tenor)
Trinity Boys Choir
Cantate Youth Choir
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis
Recorded in the Royal Albert Hall during Proms 2003 Polyeucte on 19 August, Perséphone on 10 August
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: October 2004
CD No: WARNER CLASSICS
Duration: 68 minutes
Of the five Warner Classics/BBC recordings from the 2003 Proms, the other four reviewed on this site (see links below), an initiative that hopefully will become an annual project, the recording of Stravinsky’s Perséphone is probably the most welcome, simply because this is one of Stravinsky’s rarest-heard major works. Indeed, I’m not sure that there is a currently available alternative, save for Stravinsky’s own in Sony’s boxed collection of his complete recordings. There was a Virgin recording, laid down in May 1991 by the London Philharmonic and Kent Nagano, intriguingly coupled with The Rite of Spring (Stravinsky himself commented that Perséphone was similarly inspired by the onset of Spring), but Sir Andrew Davis and his forces produce an even more vibrant performance.
Perséphone is a curious mélange, a French text by André Gide that Stravinsky did not particularly like, a soft-focused musical style, and the requirement of a reciter, not a singer, in the title role, alongside a tenor as a priest of Perséphone’s mother Demeter and both a full chorus and children’s chorus. Stravinsky described it as a melodrama or even a pantomime and it shares with the earlier Oedipus Rex a stylised conception that makes it equally a crossover between opera, ballet and oratorio. In Perséphone there is a dance element, understandably not replicated in the Proms, but what annoyed Gide so much that he left the project solely in Stravinsky’s hands was the way the composer subjugated the received pronunciation of the French to musical rhythm. French seems a perfect language to set to music, and that is true of Perséphone, but one ought to be warned against learning French from this particular work! Presumably for natural French speakers (and singers) it’s difficult to get around Stravinsky’s metres; so non-French performers might have an advantage.
Certainly the BBC Symphony Chorus, Trinity Boys’ Choir and Cantate Youth Choir as well as tenor Paul Groves are convincing in their enunciation, very naturally recorded in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall acoustic. Nicole Tibbels, sometime French coach of the BBC Symphony Chorus, perfectly judges the simple honesty of Perséphone’s speeches, who stares too closely into the narcissus and gets transported to Hades to become Pluto’s bride. However through her mother’s persistence, and the development of farming by Demophoön (confusingly also known as Triptolemus), let alone Mercury’s provision of a pomegranate, Perséphone chooses a life that is half on earth – bringing spring every year to the land – and half in the underworld (when winter grips the earth).
This performance has given me repeated pleasure, especially as I was in Iceland when the performance actually happened, so full marks to Warner for picking this work. Worth it for its rarity alone, Sir Andrew Davis – always a fine Stravinskian – lovingly marshals his performers, wily to every shift of rhythm and mood.
But that is not all; the makeweight is an even rarer item from Paul Dukas’s small catalogue. In fact it was not scheduled for the 2003 Proms at all, and only sneaked in when Leonard Slatkin withdrew and Yan Pascal Tortelier took over, replacing Barber’s Medea for Dukas’s Polyeucte. It sounds as if it should have fitted easily into the Greek myth theme of that Proms season, but in fact the name is of a Christian martyr married to the daughter of the Roman governor of Armenia, who had to implement Emperor Decius’s anti-Christian policy. Inspired by Corneille’s tragedy, Dukas’s often-sombre score eloquently matches the moods of love, duty and defiance, and certainly deserves wider currency. As to competition, well, Tortelier with the BBC Philharmonic, offers the only readily available alternative for Chandos (coupled with Dukas’s only Symphony). The BBC Symphony – on short notice – responds just as ardently as their northern cousins do, with perhaps even more atmosphere created in the Royal Albert Hall.
A word about the booklet notes, which reprint the Proms originals with full texts and translations for Perséphone: this is a major plus, and Warner is congratulated for its thoroughness.
Recommendations for releases from the 2004 Proms: Slatkin’s Elgar The Music Makers and Andrew Davis’s Dvořák Mass in D – maybe together if they fit! Also, Glyndebourne’s “Gianni Schicchi” and a CD of BBC commissions, including Zhou Long’s The Immortal and Joby Talbot’s Sneaker Wave.