Stravinsky’s Perséphone (1934) is a dynamic music-theatrical narration of the myth of Persephone’s abduction to the underworld and return to earth. The transparent, sober but evocative music epitomizes Stravinsky’s sensuous take on Neoclassicism, and the piece showcases Stravinsky’s eclectic, original and highly personal approach to music and musical drama through a playful mixture of several genres – melodrama, song, chorus, dance and pantomime. Ultimately, Perséphone offers Stravinsky’s second ode to spring, albeit without the brutal excesses of Le Sacre.
This album was recorded live during the Helsinki Festival 2017 with a star cast featuring English tenor Andrew Staples and French actress Pauline Cheviller. They join forces with the Finnish National Opera’s chorus, children’s chorus and orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, in a breath-taking performance that lifts out the piece’s transformative power.
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"As Esa-Pekka Salonen’s beautifully modulated performance demonstrates, [the work's] inconsistencies do not matter at all when the music is unfolded with such meticulous attention to detail. Nothing is forced, and all the elements, sung, played and spoken, are integrated so carefully…There are moments when the sound of the orchestra seems recessed slightly too far behind the voices, but every morsel of detail in the scoring, which uses a large orchestra with chamber music-like fastidiousness, is there, and glowing."
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The Finnish Opera dusts off a little known masterpiece.
Stravinsky’s Perséphone (1933/34) is the least heard of the Russian master’s middle-period neoclassical scores. A dramatic cantata, it recounts the myth of Persephone, daughter of the Greek goddess Demeter, who descended to the underworld to be with Pluto. (In the original tale Pluto abducted her, but in André Gide’s libretto her capitulation is a voluntary act.) Once a year she returned to earth, representing renewal and the arrival of spring.
Stravinsky’s setting is for tenor solo (Eumolphe, a priest who co-narrates the story), a female narrator (Persephone, who has a spoken part), a mixed chorus and chamber sized orchestra.
The composer’s writing is typical of this period: detached and formal. While dramatic and emotional moments are underlined, it is done in a restrained way - a musical equivalent of ancient, stylised frescoes. In this restraint lies considerable beauty, notably in the string harmonies and the writing for female chorus. Perséphone brings to mind many of Stravinsky’s better known works: the tenor part recalls the title role in Oedipus Rex (although it is more precipitously high-lying); the strings recall the ballet Apollo; the harp part anticipates Orpheus, and woodwind voicings are near identical to those in the later Cantata On Old English Texts.
The work has had few recordings. Stravinsky’s version from the ‘60s lacks atmosphere, and can be accessed only by buying a Sony box set of the composer's complete recordings. (Not a bad idea, though.) A very fine Virgin recording under Kent Nagano is hard to find today. No matter, because this one is excellent. Esa-Pekka Salonen has conducted a lot of Stravinsky: he knows how this music works. Pauline Cheviller’s youthful timbre is ideal for Persephone’s French narration, and English tenor Andrew Staples’ top notes ring out sensationally. The live recording captures the orchestral and vocal colours beautifully. The Orchestra and Chorus of the Finnish National Opera give of their best. My slight reservation concerns the balance: ideally I would place Staples closer to the microphone, but it’s a very minor point. Libretto and translation are included.