Based on Sophocles’ famous tragedy, Stravinsky’s grippingly powerful Oedipus Rex represents the pinnacle of his neo-classical style, using the chorus and aria structure of that earlier period to great dramatic effect. Similarly drawing inspiration from classical antiquity, the ballet Apollon musagète evokes the grand French tradition of the 17th and 18th centuries, its two tableaux displaying rich string harmonies and textures that are pleasantly mesmerising, expressive and calmly indulgent.

Producer & Audio Editor: Nicholas Parker
Balance engineer: Jonathan Stokes (Classic Sound Ltd)
Recording engineer: Neil Hutchinson (Classic Sound Ltd)
Mixing & mastering: Classic Sound Ltd
Recorded: Live on 25 April and 1 May 2013, Barbican Hall, London

Born near St Peterburg in 1882, by 1920 Stravinsky had settled in France, eventually becoming a French citizen in 1934. During this period, he moved away from his Russian style, influenced by his time under the tutelage of Rimsky-Korsakov, towards a new ‘neo-classical’ style. The idea for ‘an opera in Latin on the subject of a tragedy of the ancient world, with which everyone would be familiar’, was essentially Stravinsky’s own, as is proved by a letter to Jean Cocteau (who wrote the libretto in French, which was then translated into Latin) of October 1925, setting out the terms of their collaboration. The eventual form of Oedipus Rex, a story that needs little by way of introduction, suggests Baroque oratorio as a model, with its alternation of recitative, aria and chorus, as well as the central role of the narrator (or, as here, the Speaker, who is ostensibly explaining the plot in the language of the audience – French, in this case). Sir John Eliot Gardiner gathered an outstanding cast for this performance, led by Jennifer Johnston and Stuart Skelton, with narration provided by internationally renowned French actress Fanny Ardant.

Apollon musagète provides a nicely contrasting mood to the heavy drama of Oedipus Rex. Similarly written during Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, it was the first ballet Stravinsky wrote for a company other than Diaghilev’s (the Ballets Russes, for whom he had written his “hits” The Rite of Spring, The Firebird, and Petrushka). It was also his first commission from the United States, to where he would later move, becoming a naturalised US citizen in 1945. The Library of Congress specified a pantomime for three or four dancers and small orchestra on a subject of the composer’s choice, to which Stravinsky responded with the first of his abstract, plot-less, ballets, and his first ever work for string orchestra. Yet, Apollon must surely be one of the most surprising commissions in history for the commissioner. Stravinsky, the well-known exponent of modern music, still best known for The Rite of Spring but with a recent reputation for “steely formalism”, produced a melting, graceful score for strings that sounded suspiciously like an attempt to revive the French Romantic ballet of Adolphe Adam and Léo Delibes. It was choreographed by a young George Balanchine, another Russian émigré, who co-founded the New York City Ballet and, like Stravinsky, had connections with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

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