Salonen Nails Stravinsky’s “Perséphone”

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STRAVINSKY: Perséphone / Andrew Staples, ten; Pauline Cheviller, narr; Finnish National Opera Chorus, Children’s Chorus & Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond / Pentatone 186688 (live: Helsinki, August 11, 2017)

For the past 26 years (wow, a quarter-century! How time flies!), my favorite performance of Perséphone has been the one by tenor Anthony Rolfe-Johnson and conductor Kent Nagano. I’m sure that part of my loyalty to this performance was that it was my first hearing of this work, and since Nagano coupled it in a 2-CD set with a really terrific performance of Le sacre du Printemps I just sort of assumed that it was a nonpareil performance.

But I was wrong.

One of the things I liked about the Nagano performance was the lovely tenor of Rolfe-Johnson, but upon relistening to it I found it too legato, smooth and lyrical, a style that would have been very well-suited to Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s more lyrical opera The Rake’s Progress, but Perséphone, although a ballet, dates from the composer’s neo-Classic style, the same era as Oedipus Rex and Les Noces, and I don’t necessarily want to hear Perséphone sung in that style. Granted, there are light, lyrical passages in this work, which is, after all, a ballet, but to my ears both tenor Andrew Staples and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen have gotten the style exactly right. I should also point out that even Nagano’s conducting in this work was smoother and more lyrical than Salonen’s, but this, too, did not work in context with the more strophic, strongly rhythmic sections of the score.

Moreover, and this is a point I’ve made over and over in my reviews, the sonics on the Nagano recording had too much reverb and echo on them, which also worked to slightly dull the impact of the music, which is for the most part lightly scored and thus needs a clearer sound profile. The Salonen recording has natural reverb, but it’s clearer and more biting, particularly in the winds and strings which were always a Stravinsky trademark, this despite the fact that Salonen’s tempi are much slower than Nagano’s—his performance runs a full three minutes longer. (I would remind my readers that eventually even Stravinsky decided, in his Columbia Records years, that some of his works should be played slower than he originally wrote them.) I also found that Staples’ voice was malleable enough to sing lyrically in those passages that called for lyricism while still being able to project a brighter tone in the louder parts, something Rolfe-Johnson was unable or unwilling to do.

I should also point out that this recording uses Stravinsky’s 1949 revised score. My original copy of the Nagano CD does not indicate that the revised score was used, thus it is probably the 1934 original. The text Stravinsky used to depict the adventures of Perséphone, Demeter and Eumolphus in the Underworld was by André Gide, but he cut large portions of it to bring it more in line with the original by Homer. Thanks to the sharper, clearer sound, the Finnish National Opera Orchestra makes a much more visceral impact, not only in the softer passages but especially in the louder ones, where one needs to hear the bite of the orchestra. Narrator Pauline Cheviller gives us an impassioned, almost breathless reading of her lines, which adds to the musical drama.

Interestingly, although Salonen conducted the first two portions of the ballet at slower tempi than Nagano, the third section, “Perséphone renaissante,” is considerably faster by more than a minute. This is clearly evident to the listener in the tauter, more driving rhythms, such as in the opening of “C’est ainsi, nous reconte Homère,” and even the more lyrical passages in this section have more forward momentum. Interestingly, Salonen’s tempo choices come extremely close to the German-language performance, issued on Audite, by tenor Fritz Wunderlich and conductor Dean Dixon.

This is clearly an outstanding performance of Perséphone, highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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