Wednesday 2 November 2016

As the composer intended: Stravinsky's Mass from Edinburgh

Stravinsky - Mass, Cantata - Choir of St Mary's Cathedral Edinburgh - Delphian
Stravinsky Mass, Cantata, motets; Choir of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scottish Chamber Orchestra Soloists, Duncan Ferguson; Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 24 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Stravinsky sacred works performed by a liturgical choir with children

This new disc of Stravinsky's Mass paired with his Cantata, Ave Maria, Pater Noster and Credo is from the choir of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh and Scottish Chamber Orchestra Soloists conducted by Duncan Ferguson, with soprano Ruby Hughes and tenor Nicholas Mulroy on Delphian.

Stravinsky intended the top two lines of his mass (composed in the USA between 1944 and 1947) to be sung by children, yet the recording catalogue is devoted mainly to adult choirs performing the work. The main competition for this new disc is the recording on Hyperion by Westminster Cathedral Choir, conducted by James O'Donnell where the work is paired with the Symphony of Psalms.

The choir of St Mary's (Anglican) Cathedral, Edinburgh includes both boys and girls on the treble line, and the alto line is sung by a mixture of female and male altos. They sing with an attractively soft-grained tone, allied to a nice precision though the articulation is not as crisply emphasised as on some recordings.
When I sang the work, the chorus master emphasised that though full attention should be given to articulation and rhythm, the piece had ultimately to sound natural as if you have been singing it for ever. The advantage of hearing cathedral choir performing the work is that, in all likelihood the work is in their repertoire and has had the advantage of repeated performance. At any rate, the results here ally clarity to flexibility and a nice alertness. The soloists in the mass (Jacob Slater, Michael Wood, Samuel Jenkins, Colin Murray) all sing with a nice clarity. The ten players from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra accompany finely.

The smaller sacred pieces, Ave Maria, Pater Noster and Credo are recorded in the Latin versions which Stravinsky made, though all three were originally in Church Slavonic, and I think that that language would help to give a greater sense of crispness.

The Cantata is a slightly strange work, setting Early English poetry (and causing problems because Stravinsky insisted on setting Tomorrow shall be my dancing day complete, including the notoriously anti-semitic text.). It is not strictly a sacred work, yet it is about death and rebirth. Ruby Hughes and Nicholas Mulroy contributed finely judged solos, whilst the choir and instrumental ensemble bring a nicely neo-classical clarity to the piece. This is an admirable performance, but one which does not quite convince with the work, yet it makes an interesting contrast to the mass.

The final three pieces on the disc are relatively rare, Gesualdo completed by Stravinsky. Three motets where some vocal lines were missing and these are supplied by Stravinsky. The results are somewhere between Gesualdo and Stravinsky, in the first two Stravinsky's contributions simply adds a little more spice to the already spicy mix, whilst in the third the sense of Stravinsky is greater providing an intriguing sense of new/old.

This fine release is complemented by a substantial article by the composer Gabriel Jackson. The recording is a not inconsiderable achievement. There is a reason why choirs with children on the top line do not record Stravinsky's mass more often, and Duncan Ferguson and his Edinburgh forces must be congratulated for not only achieving a recording, but creating a highly desirable one.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) - Mass
Igor Stravinsky - Ave Maria
Igor Stravinsky - Pater Noster
Igor Stravinsky - Credo
Igor Stravinsky - Cantata
Igor Stravinsky - Tres Sacrae Cantiones
Ruby Hughes (soprano)
Nicholas Mulroy (tenor)
Choir of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh
Scottish Chamber Orchestra Soloists
Duncan Ferguson (conductor)
Recorded 9-11, 26 February, 1-2 March 2016, Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh
DELPHIAN DCD34164 1CD [59.54]
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