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Igor Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms; Symphony in Three Movements; Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Igor Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Igor Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms; Symphony in Three Movements; Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Genres: Jazz, Special Interest, Classical
  •  Track Listings (7) - Disc #1

In a way that oddly prefigures the stance of the "holy minimalists" so currently popular, Stravinsky declared that a motive behind composing his Symphony of Psalms was his "eagerness to counter the many composers who had a...  more »


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In a way that oddly prefigures the stance of the "holy minimalists" so currently popular, Stravinsky declared that a motive behind composing his Symphony of Psalms was his "eagerness to counter the many composers who had abused these magisterial verses as pegs for their own lyrico-sentimental 'feelings'." The result issued in one of the 20th century's most perfect choral masterpieces. For all its objective austerity (violins, violas, and clarinets are exiled from the score), the piece is awash in fresh new sound colors and rhythmic vitality (with some family likeness to those Stravinsky explored in Les Noces and Oedipus Rex), ending in a poem of praise (Psalm 150) that radiantly answers the uneasy waiting of the middle movement (Psalm 40). Pierre Boulez maintains the necessary level of diaphanous precision, though he is a measure too sensuous, forceful, and even fast compared with Stravinsky's own visionary account of the work, enveloping the final "Alleluia" in an undeniably beautiful but seductive sheen. Boulez also offers a finely etched, incisive reading of Stravinsky's wartime Symphony in Three Movements that is strong on its astringent ironies. The composer's interests were clearly geared to the symphony more as an exploration of possible sound worlds than to its traditional form, even in his most neoclassical period, as in the ritualistic gestures of the Symphonies of Wind Instuments. It's a nice snapshot of earlier Stravinsky, though this disc would be even more compelling if it had instead included the Symphony in C to make a compendium of his best symphonies such as can be found on Georg Solti's Stravinsky collection. But listeners familiar with only the great Stravinsky ballets have a goldmine left to discover in these works. --Thomas May

CD Reviews

Brilliant Colors Compensate for Strangely Rushed Psalm Coda
Karl Henning | Boston, MA | 07/23/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)

"To get the unpleasant news out of the way first ... the Symphony of Psalms is generally quite good, but is far from the best. There are runaway crescendos in which the full ensemble gets shriek-ey to a degree which is, actually, shocking for Boulez, who normally (witness the two instrumental selections on the disc) shows such refined sensitivity to Stravinsky's use of color.But the strangest offense which Boulez here commits against Stravinsky is, the Signature Moment of the Symphony of Psalms, the wonderful coda to the third movement, one of Stravinsky's trademark Codas of Eternal Stillness, which floats off and melds into Time Itself. Unforgiveably, Boulez rushes this. Compounding the offense is the fact that this is billed as the 1948 revision of the Symphony of Psalms, a revision which primarily consisted in Stravinsky specifying refined tempos - and Stravinsky gives a tempo for the coda of 72 quarter-notes to the minute, where Boulez races through at more than twice this rate. Since this tempo specification is, you might say, the whole raison-d'être for the revision, Boulez missing this - a change which Eric Walter White, with somewhat amusing understatement, remarks "affects the speed of the coda" - is puzzling ... for he is a composer/conductor famed for his close reading of the score ....But an overwhelming, thrice-welcome virtue which pervades this entire disc, is the vibrant colors, the faithfulness to Stravinsky's miraculous chords, so exquisitely voiced. Boulez here offers the original 1920 version of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which is really the only way to hear the piece: in later versions, Stravinsky made the ill-advised decision to remove the alto flute and alto clarinet (one passage, in particular, he had to re-compose, to accommodate the range of the regular flute), but these two `unusual' instruments are brilliant components in a number of delicately-scored passages (including just these two in duet) where, frankly, in later versions they are sore missed. I was especially pleased that the high clarinet motto which opens the Symphonies (and returns throughout the work) began so delicately ... it is a passage which can too easily be made shrill, and tire the ear - and while Stravinsky was a tireless seeker after striking colors, he did not aim to tire the ear. This is one reason why, for me, the piece succeeds so much more easily in a performance space, rather than reproduced from a recording; in a concert hall, the ear has more "breathing room", and this recurring high clarinet does not necessarily grow wearisome.But all of Stravinsky's rich chords shimmer, hum, burr - especially, as we expect, the wonderful chorale which closes out the piece. This piece alone makes this disc a joy to listen to. Could almost say that the release of the last chord is alone worth the price of admission, only it would seem like fanaticism ...."
Between Objectivity and Passion
Thomas F. Bertonneau | Oswego, NY United States | 03/20/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I don't pretend to have a thorough knowledge of the discography of Igor Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms (1930), written on commission by Serge Koussevitsky for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I know the composer's stereo performance on Columbia, Igor Markevitch's on Philips, Neville Marriner's on London, and two or three others. Stravinsky's recording must be taken as authoritative, although I have always thought that Stravinsky was too austere in his self-interpertation. Markevitch, who uses Russian forces (recorded in the 1960s), is good. British performances miss the mark because the choristers sing too sweetly. It's the opposite interpretive sin from the composer's own. The recent DG disc with Pierre Boulez leading the Berlin Philharmonic and the Berlin Radio Chorus strikes me (based on my limited survey) as the best ever. I confess to having approached this disc with trepidation. Of Boulez the critics sometimes with justice say, "the Iceman cometh." But the champion of musical modernism, who lately has turned his hand to Mahler and (hard to believe) Bruckner, delivers a performance that does not sacrifice vitality to objectivity. Objective it is; no one, on hearing this, would mistake it for a devotional performance. But Stravinsky's passionless delivery is here redeemed by his interpreter's discovery that while the form of the Symphony comes from Bach its harmonies come from Debussy and that they have a life and a warmth (even) all their own. The major coupling is the Symphony in Three Movements. Eduardo Máta made a recording twenty years ago for RCA that still takes the laurels in this repertory, but Boulez reaches nearly the same level. The outer movements invoke the rhythmic pandemonium of "The Rite of Spring." The horns really whoop it up in the Third Movement. The central panel is relaxed in a balletically muscular way: Certain moments possess what might be called poignancy. (Aaron Copland must have listened attentively to this score.) The minor coupling is the plurally entitled "Symphonies of Wind Instruments" (1922). This is the source of the writing for winds in the Symphony of Psalms. Boulez makes it very ritualistic and brings out its relation to the music that another modernist, Edgar Varèse, was composing, in New York, at about the same time. Did Karajan record these works with the BPO? Probably, but I have never heard the results. As Boulez mellows into his seniority, his music-making becomes more attractive, warmer, more plastic and attractive. It's a superior item. Recommended."
Stravinsky to hear
Greg Hales | Vacaville, Ca USA | 03/27/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This new Boulez/BPO Stravinksy disc is unique. The sound the orchestra produces is not normally one expects in Stravinksy but it works. The strings hold the lines with ease. In the symphony of pslams the woodwinds are fantastic with intonation and color. The openning of the second movement is a great example.The symphonies of wind intstruments is the best playing I've heard....and I've heard quite abit....In the symphony in 3 movements there are a few tempos slower than one expects...but the orchestra does a great job with the Boulez approach. I'm not 100% sold on his views in this piece but I will not that let stop me from recommending this disc. I am very happy to have purchased the disc and urge other to do the same"