IgorFest – Les Noces & Oedipus Rex

Russian Wedding Songs
Les noces
Oedipus Rex

Pokrovsky Ensemble [Traditional]

Pokrovsky Ensemble
Katia Labèque, Marielle Labèque, Jean-Yves Thibaudet & Kirill Gerstein (pianos)
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Thomas Adès [Les noces]

Oedipus – Glenn Winslade
Jocasta – Ekaterina Gubanova
Creon / Messenger – James Rutherford
Tiresias – Stephen Richardson
Shepherd – Niall Chorell

Michael Pennington (narrator)

Men of the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 28 October, 2006
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Almost as though it had never gone away for the summer, “IgorFest” continued here with an enterprising double bill, ‘and then some’, of Stravinsky’s semi-, or rather almost-, stageworks.

The addition actually came at the very beginning of the programme, with the Pokrovsky Ensemble – whosework over more than three decades in revitalising and disseminating traditional Russian culture has been among the signal aspects of ‘world music’ – performing a varied breviary of Russian wedding songs along with appropriate dances. By bringing out both the sheer rhythmic vitality and also the melodic complexity of this ostensibly ceremonial music, the Pokrovsky Ensemble effected a crucial bridge between the intuitive and the composed, as well as providing a colourful and affecting spectacle in its own right.

Heard in such a context, “Les noces” hardly sounded the exotic or culturally-removed work it might once have seemed – for all the Pokrovsky’s rendering takes it decisively away from even the periphery of the Western concert tradition. Its prolonged gestation (1914-23) making it the common thread and also the culmination of the composer’s ‘Russian period’, the piece is a veritable one-off from a period when every major work is an idealisation and abstraction of his cultural inheritance. And, with Thomas Adès directing with conviction a high-profile piano foursome that interlocked with the required synchronicity and anonymity, as well as an assured contribution from the percussionists of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, the outcome was a performance as alive to the music’s anticipations of the future as to its grounding in the past. Nor was Symphony Hall’s ambience too ample for a reading that projected the work’s sheer energy and fervency with tangible immediacy.

It is typical of Stravinsky’s output that works so near in time yet seeming so far apart in content should be revealed as being remarkably similar in conception. Thus the choral-ballet of “Les noces” was ideally complemented by the opera-oratorio that is “Oedipus Rex” (1927), the first large-scale product of its composer’s neo-classicism that was to remain one of his most inclusive. Yet its also a work which, in its Latin retelling of an ancient Greek drama from a detached, even clinical 1920s’ perspective, can seem impressive but remote: a cultural monument some way removed from even a stylised reality.

All credit, then, to this account for bringing out an empathy with the characters and situations too often absent. It helped that the singing was consistently fine – with Glenn Winslade overcoming initial vagaries in tone to deliver a rounded portrayal of Oedipus, his demeanour changing from the imperious to the stricken with unforced inevitability, and Ekaterina Gubanova melding Handelian poise with Verdian directness in the relatively brief but crucial role allotted Jocasta. Following on from his recent fine showing in Elgar’s “The Kingdom”, James Rutherford brought a deadpan quality to the part of Creon, and an authority to that of the Messenger which made him a true ‘prophet of doom’, while Stephen Richardson was eloquently understated as Tiresias, and Niall Chorell uncommonly (but also appropriately) touching as the Shepherd. As narrator, Michael Pennington steered a course between too deadpan and over-earnest, maintaining continuity as well as fulfilling the link between audience and performers. The men of the CBSO Chorus sang with customary commitment, albeit seeming under-strength to project such passages as those beginning each act with the necessary force and impact.

Sakari Oramo conducted with a real sense of purpose, while not neglecting those elements of humour and pathos that, often latent, surface at key points to seal the work’s emotional affect. Along with his performance of “Le Rossignol” earlier this year, this was the sure highlight of his contribution to “IgorFest” so far – not least in its endowing an admired work with the capacity to engage and to move.

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