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Reviews: Stravinsky: Les Noces, Mass, Cantata - Daniel Reuss

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Reviews: 2

Review by Edvin May 23, 2006 (2 of 3 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Stravinsky used to call Les Noces his most Russian work. He started work on this piece in 1916 with an orchestral version which he abandoned in favour of a version for pianola, 2 cimbaloms, harmonium and percussion. But his final version is the one heard here for no less than four pianos and percussion. And voices galore, of course.

The composer recorded this with an illustrous set of pianists, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss and Roger Sessions. But he was persuaded to perform it in English and much of the spiky Russian-ness was lost. CBS soon remedied it with a great recording led by Robert Craft in the native tongue. This has never been released on cd, let alone sacd. His later version is not known to me.

This new version is great in every respect. The soloists are on their toes in this difficult music. You can´t relax for as much as a second. This is music that relies on being rhythmically alive and the conductor Daniel Reuss is keeping everyone alert and gymnastic. This is busy music and you cannot escape it, the bride and her friends are all very edgy. Reuss and his RIAS Kammerchor, the MusikFabrik play this wonderfully. I am deeply impressed.

25 years later Stravinsky wrote his Mass in 1948, a work rather spare and "original". By this I mean that the composer sought to present his own religious beliefs without ornamentation and flashing Glorias. He calls the Mozart Masses "sweets of sin" and wanted to produce the real thing. In my opinion, he succeeded. This Mass is a masterpiece of understatement. But it is also a well of intimate counterpoint, of tunes interwoven in the manner of Monteverdi. The orchestra is reduced to a wind ensemble only. No warm string seductions here. A perfect blend of winds and voices with the soloists importantly non-operatic. Straight and vibrato-less voices. I first heard this work when I was a teenager and remember vividly that after a day of really hard physical work, and pay, putting this piece on the turntable and being transported to a better place. Since that evening I have loved this piece of restrainment and aloofness(?). The melodic beauty is so close to my heart, the honesty of emotion and feeling is mine. This is a lovely performance, absolutely illuminating. That Agnus Dei haunts you.

The Cantata dates from 1952 and is based on old English Anonymous lyrics from the 15th and 16th centuries. Much lovely music, but not a masterpiece like the Mass. The performance is as good as before and if I have doubts they only belong to the music itself. The work starts off with a lovely A Lyke-Wake Dirge which is followed by the innocent "The Maidens Came", sung by a voice of purity. My only qualm with this piece is the over-long central movement called "Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day".

Both Les Noces and Mass places the listener in the midde of the ensemble. You are surrounded by instruments. I don´t mind this at all, on the contrary. But suddenly with the Cantata all is in front of you, with the rears as atmosphere only. I don´t know the reasoning behind this and would have welcomed an explanation in the boklet. The booklet, by the way, is quite thick and removable from the sleeve.

Edit about the sound:

In Les Noces we are faced with the problem of balancing four pianos, percussion, chorus and solo voices. This is met with perfection and the surround speakers are used with utmost taste. We are far from Tacet so don´t expect one piano per speaker, oh no, this is more tastefully done. As a listener you are placed where things happen. You are in the middle of this nervous pre-wedding strife. The balance engineer has found a perfect formula for clarity and impact. The back to front perspective is a lesson for many to learn.

The Mass is a more small scale work and divided into voices/winds/brass. The engineer, Florian Schmidt, has wisely decided to place the two bands in the rears, left & right with lots of reflection in the fronts. The voices are in front and as this is recorded in the famous Jesus- Christus Kirche we all know what to expect. The balance between the "orchestras" are perfect and they make some magic noises. The voices in front are spread out in order to make a perfect illusion.

Th Cantata is a different piece. Only a few instruments, a secular text. No elaborate counterpoint. So Mr Schmidt chose to present the music in front with some super tasteful atmosphere in the rears.

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Review by Jay-dub June 11, 2007 (7 of 9 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Here's as good a reason to invest in SACD as any: Les Noces is the twentieth century's greatest piece of music in the "classical" tradition, and its instrumentation makes it impossible to record adequately on RBCD. All the percussion instruments sound very similar if their transients are not captured very accurately. They need very precise spacial placement in order to avoid being jumbled together in a confused mass. And the Russian words fly by very quickly. You'll never be able to follow if you have to guess half the syllables.

This recording occasioned my conversion to SACD. Before I got my SACD player I had this recording and the Craft recording (Koch, now on Naxos), plus the Dover score. Both of these disks are very clean digital recordings. I never once managed to follow the text alongside either recording without getting lost. The very first time I listened to the SACD stereo layer, whenever I fumbled for my place I could find it again by hearing the words being sung, finding them in the booklet, and going from there. Anyone who claims that SACD stereo sound has no audible advantage over RBCD has been doing the wrong kind of trials.

The subjective improvement in sound quality is just as striking. I can make out where each of the four pianos is and where each of the soloists is, discern every note that's played on the piano, distinguish the percussion timbres.

The performance is less rhythmic than Craft's. Reuss avoids strong accents that would interfere with beauty of vocal production, and lets the choir sing in a way that sounds, to my ears at least, a bit behind the beat. (Synchronizing voices with percussion instruments is a tricky matter. You have to sing the consonants before the beat, but how much -- reasonable people will differ.) As a result, I need to focus more attention in order to enjoy Reuss's recording. But in the last analysis, it's a far more rewarding performance.

The RIAS choir is in command of a range of expressive tone colors and nuances of phrasing that puts it in a different league from Craft's Simon Joly Chorale. There are many striking moments from the choir, as well as from all soloists, that indicate how much the singers are exploring the feelings of the wedding's participants. (In this work, everybody sings the lines of many characters.)

The biggest weakness in the present performance is the bass soloist's voice, which is gravelly, especially in forte. This spoils the effect of the ending, when the newlyweds have gone to bed, the churchbells are ringing the end of day, and the bass sings, "My soul, my good wife, my joy by day, my playmate at night, we will live together in bliss so that all men may envy us."

The other works on this disk are also wonderful, though relatively minor and clearly much easier to perform. This recording is superior in every way to my other CD (conducted by de Leeuw, on Philips).

The booklet contains the Russian text of Les Noces in modernized spelling (be prepared to learn the Cyrillic alphabet in order to follow along), along with the old singable English translation by D. Millar Craig (the same as is printed in the Naxos booklet, and also, as I understand, in the booklet of the Hyperion recording), the abbreviated French singing version by Ramuz, and a German translation that looks complete and relatively literal. Why doesn't somebody do an accurate translation of the Russian into English? The printed texts of the other works, of course, provide no difficulty.

Because of the flaws described above and the importance of the piece, I recommend that you have a supplementary recording of Les Noces, either the Craft or possibly the Ancerl (which I haven't heard); but this recording is indispensible, and will remain so for quite some time, I expect.

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