IgorFest: Sacred Stravinsky

Three Sacred Choruses [Slavonic and Latin versions]
Symphonies of Wind Instruments [1920 and 1947 versions]
Tres sacrae cantiones (after Gesualdo)
The Dove Descending Breaks the Air
Canticum sacrum

Ex Cathedra

Members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Jeffrey Skidmore

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 22 June, 2006
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

“Sacred Stravinsky” was the title of this concert (and part of “IgorFest”) – which, in the broadest sense of the term, was what was on offer in this conspectus of, paradoxically, the most personal aspect of the composer’s output. Resourcefully planned too, so that both halves opened with the sacred choruses Stravinsky wrote in the wake of his re-embracing of Christianity: heard first in the original Slavonic, then in the revised Latin of 1949. Most surprising is the consistency of their linear progress for all that the greater accentuation of Slavonic brings a more syllabic approach to phrasing than does Latin. In both instances, the gentle supplication of the “Otche Nash” / “Pater Noster” (1926) contrasts with the lilting melancholy of the “Bogoroditse Devo” / “Ave Maria” (1932), then the restrained fervency of the “Simvol Very” / “Credo” (1934). Limpidly rendered, albeit with the Latin versions (understandably) more clearly projected, the musical division between Orthodoxy and Catholicism has never seemed more relative.

Equally revealing was the opportunity to hear both versions of Symphonies of Wind Instruments – the epitaph to Stravinsky’s ‘Russian’ period, and among the most radical of his pieces in any medium. Not that this could have been obvious at what was apparently a disastrous premiere – after which, the work was unperformed for over a quarter-century. Heard now, this 1920 original sounds wonderfully luminous in its scoring for woodwind and brass – ideas overlapping others in a litany of anticipation and recollection, concluding with a chorale that originated as a tribute to Debussy and which becomes a memorial affecting in its timelessness. The 1947 revision removes the more unusual instruments and audibly clarifies the textures, but its greater timbral astringency can feel to be at odds with the nature of this music – even though Jeffrey Skidmore, directing members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, drew an appropriately calm and lucid response on both occasions.

The first half concluded with “Mass” (1948) that, in its scoring for quintets of woodwind and brass alongside mixed chorus, Stravinsky placed outside a liturgical context. Here again, thought had been given to the nature of the performance – with the “Tres sacrae cantiones” by Gesualdo that Stravinsky had reconstructed in 1957/9 placed after the ‘Gloria’, ‘Credo’ and ‘Sanctus’ respectively – thus enabling the near-Modernist dissonance of music from three centuries ago to interact with the Palestrina-like consonance of that from barely sixty years back. A separate consort gave the Gesualdo madrigals with evident intensity, while the main choir unfolded “Mass” with a comparable degree of euphony.

After the touching gentleness of the hymn-setting of T.S. Eliot in “The Dove Descending Breaks the Air” (1962), the concert closed with “Canticum sacrum” (1955) – written for performance in, and also designed for the acoustic of, St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Music that, in its Mussorgskian starkness and Webernian precision, could only be by Stravinsky – now fully embarked on a personal rendering of the serial method such as served him well over his last decade of creativity. With its Gabrieli-inspired assortment of brass and darkly-sonorous complement of woodwind and strings, this can seem the most forbidding of Stravinsky’s sacred works, though the sheer vigour of its outer sections and the evident compassion of its central triptych on the virtues of charity, hope and faith – not to mention assured contributions from Christopher Watson and Greg Skidmore in the even-numbered sections – injected a notably human expression into music which, after all, follows a trajectory from Christ’s exhortation to his apostles through to their spreading of the gospel. Good, too, to have had so clear a rendering of the important organ part – this being the only piece by Stravinsky in which it appears.

Indeed, the whole concert was a tribute to the success of Jeffrey Skidmore in evolving Ex Cathedra, over three decades of existence, into an outfit able to perform the range of choral music from six centuries with sensitivity and also an unforced attention to detail – qualities fully in evidence here.

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