Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky forces offer a rich pairing of two of Igor Stravinsky's major works from the 1920s: Les Noces, a short ballet with an unusual scoring, for singers, percussion and four pianos, and Oedipus Rex, a one-act "opera-oratorio" that is somehow austere, powerfully moving, and bizarre, all at once.
Gestating in the composer's mind since 1912, when he was working on The Rite of Spring, Les Noces went though many transformations and re-orchestrations before his final version was premiered by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1923. Stravinsky used Russian folk texts to portray a peasant wedding, with soloists and chorus representing the bride and groom, their parents, guests and the wedding broker. It's a highly ritualized wedding — more precisely, not the ceremony itself but episodes like the fixing of the bride's and groom's hair, the bestowing of the parents' blessing, and the wedding feast. The whole work (roughly 22 minutes) is so energy-packed, with only a few relaxed moments, that much of it can seem more frenzied than the human-sacrifice ritual in The Rite of Spring. It's not for every taste — a Gramophone reviewer in 2006 refers to "all that jangling and shrieking" — but it's astonishingly original, and was hugely influential on other composers, especially Carl Orff, whose 1936 Carmina Burana seems to leap right from the pages of Les Noces (and from bits of Oedipus Rex too).
There have been some distinguished recordings of Les Noces, not least a 1959 Stravinsky-led performance with all-star casting for the four pianos: the American composers Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss and Roger Sessions honoring the maestro. The text can be sung in either French or Russian (though Stravinsky used English for the 1959 recording), and naturally Gergiev and his St. Petersburg company use Russian. Indeed, this performance feels Russian through and through, maybe because of the authentic diction of the singers and their ability to bring out the folk-style melodies embedded in all that vigorous celebration. I was especially impressed by two of the soloists: Mlada Khudoley as the Bride, whose address to her tresses opens the piece, and Andrei Serov as the Bridegroom, whose salute to his new wife ends the ballet in a relatively calm though still ritualistic way. Gergiev stresses the rhythmic drive and razor-sharp percussive effects. The recorded sound is brilliant and gives precise placement to soloists and percussion, though I found the choral sound a big unfocused. (I listened to the SACD recording in stereo.)
Oedipus Rex (1927) is a prime artifact of Stravinsky's neo-classical period (a long spell, from the mid-1920s to the early 1950s in most critics' datings). To bring out the supposedly timeless qualities of Sophocles' drama, Stravinsky and his librettist, Jean Cocteau, stripped down the play, shortening the speeches and leaving out most of the choral ruminations, and then having their text translated into Latin, a "dead" but still eminently singable language — as if turning the characters into marble even with the first words sung. To distance the audience even further from some kind of Romantic/emotional identification with the characters, and to stress the role of fate, Cocteau introduced a narrator who, in a dryer-than-dry tone, periodically fills us in on the plot and even makes remarks like "And now you will hear that famous monologue ‘The Divine Jocasta Is Dead'…." — all this conspicuously not in Latin but in French or whatever the language of the audience. The staging was meant to be as ritualistic as the compression of the play, with static figures and perhaps masks — the very opposite of Stanislavskian realism — though Stravinsky had to settle for an unstaged world premiere, oratorio-style, and allowed the piece to be called an "opera-oratorio."
Musically, much of Oedipus Rex has the exciting rhythmic energy one expects of Stravinsky, though the arias tend to follow a Baroque or Classical model that anticipates the composer's The Rake's Progress 24 years later. The amalgam of modern and more antique styles is endlessly fascinating, and there are strange moments like Jocasta seeming to quote from Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus ("Glücklichist") as she sings of the stricken city and the lies of the oracle. One wonders if Stravinsky had a sly sense of humor in moments like this, or when Creon reports the oracle's disturbing revelation in a major key and with rather frolicking sounds from the winds. Equally odd are the Chorus' two joyful outbursts on the arrival of Jocasta, because they shockingly interrupt the dire words of first Oedipus and then the Narrator.
The vocal performances in the Mariinsky recording are outstanding. Sergei Semishkur, as Oedipus, has a heroic, youthful voice with plenty of power and ease in the high-lying passages. Ekaterina Semenchuk, currently singing the ambitious Marina in the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Boris Godunov with Gergiev, plays up Jocasta's desperation in her efforts of denial. There are performances on disc of other Jocastas with more pathos or regal authority (for the latter, hear Jessye Norman in Seiji Ozawa's version on Philips), and Semenchuk's Latin diction is mushy, but she does bring a strong sense of character to the role. Evgeny Nikitin, doing double duty as Creon and the Messenger, and Mikhael Petrenko as Tiresias both anchor their roles with strong, solid bass or bass-baritone voices. (They too appear in the Met/Gergiev Boris, respectively singing Marina's Jesuit advisor Rangoni and the monk Pimen.) As the Shepherd, Alexander Timchenko's sweeter, lighter tenor is an excellent contrast to Semishkur's Oedipus. For the Narrator, Gergiev might well have cast a Russian speaker to match the singing cast, but opted for Cocteau's original French text, delivered by the screen star Gérard Depardieu, who is mostly straightforward rather than declamatory or extra-dry, with moments of force and, in the final speech, even whispering.
Gergiev does not call for his excellent men's chorus and orchestra to make as electrifying an entrance as some conductors have achieved (I recall a thrilling performance of Robert Shaw with the Cleveland Orchestra many years ago), or bring Creon's scene to as exciting a climax as seems built into the music. But the final scene for Messenger and Chorus is quite overwhelming from first note to last, and throughout, the woodwinds and brass of the Mariinsky Orchestra are as characterful as in any version I have heard. As for the Mariinsky label's sound production, I found it not up to the superlative standards of its earlier CD set of Shostakovich's The Nose. As in Les Noces the chorus in Oedipus Rex sounds just a little fuzzy, but the solo singers and instrumentalists are beautifully clear and sharply located.