Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Sound Worlds

I was listening to Stravinsky's Les Noces late last night and when I got in from work today. Amazing piece. Can't think of anything else that sounds like it. Operatic Russian voices - well, it's in Russian, anyway - over four pounding pianos and a load of percussion. Not exactly lyrical, at times it sets the teeth on edge, but sonically beguiling somehow. Once or twice there are reminders of Orff's Carmina Burana, but Stravinsky's ballet will never be anything close to as popular.

In fact, the realisation that this is ballet music adds to its fascination. Difficult to imagine what a full-blown theatrical production might be like, but I'd love to be there when someone does one.

The version I was listening to is one I've had a while: Bernstein with the English Bach Festival Chorus and the English Bach Festival Percussion Ensemble from way back in 1977, which I picked up as a cheapo cheapo CD when reissued by DG under their budget 20th Century Classics series in the 1990s. I mention this because on the same CD there's a stirring account of Stravinsky's Mass (of 1948) and this sounds so different from the more famous piece that in some ways its difficult to believe it's the same composer at work. Here we get the Maestro composing for wind ensemble and voices and the combination is astringently satisfying - something that escaped me before. It's taken a couple of decades of on and off listening to unlock its secrets, for this listener at least.

The funny thing is that though I have liked everything I've ever heard from Stravinsky (eventually) there are still quite well known compositions out there about which I am essentially clueless. I suppose that's partly because so many of the pieces involve new sound worlds that take some assimilating and I haven't always been prepared to rise to the challenge. Now considering just how much I may have missed out on as a result.

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