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Penguin Guide, January 2009

This first issue in the Robert Craft collection to be issued on Naxos provides an exceptionally generous coupling of two of Stravinsky’s supreme masterpieces in excellent versions superbly recorded. Craft, the composer’s amanuensis in his later years, began conducting as a loyal helper of Stravinsky, but here he reveals himself as much more, and inspired interpreter who can reveal the fire and freshness of these two works, in performances of high voltage superbly recorded.  The distinctive timbre of Les noces with its four pianos and percussion is vividly caught, and the Western singers capture the Russian idiom well with a rustic tinge. Oedipus Rex is juts as powerfully projected with Edwards Fox as narrator in English and Martyn Hill in the title role dramatic if under strain at times, as is Jennifer Lane as Jocasta…





Fanfare, May 2005

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Gwyn Parry-Jones
MusicWeb International, March 2005

"There is no more authoritative Stravinskian around today than the American, Robert Craft. Indeed, from 1948 until Stravinsky’s death in 1971, Craft was closely allied with the composer, first as assistant, later in a closer, almost filial relationship. This recording forms part of a massive project launched by the MusicMasters label and now taken up by Naxos with the 82 year old Craft: the recording of the complete works of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Webern.

Stylistically, the music on this CD has an authentic ring to it, and Craft sets his tempi with unerringly good judgement – such a vital factor in Stravinsky’s work.

Stravinsky’s instrumentation is often quirky, even eccentric, though it almost always works wonderfully well. But it does need a conductor with an excellent ear for balance, and here Craft again succeeds admirably. The solo voices are projected without difficulty, but with a most natural sounding recording perspective. In Oedipus, the sensitivity of the Philharmonia players is very much in evidence, as is the excellent work of the men of Simon Joly’s chorus. This is demanding stuff for the male chorus, for they have to sing at times with great delicacy, at others with the roughness of football hooligans! The soloists are mostly more than capable, particular praise going to Martyn Hill in his passionate portrayal of the ‘title rôle’. Only Joseph Cornwell seems less than comfortable in the small but vital part of the Shepherd, sounding as if the part lies a little too high for him. The part of the Narrator is superbly delivered by Edward Fox; though his approach is restrained and understated, he manages to fill the text where necessary with a sense of ominous dread.

Les Noces is equally successful, possibly even more so. This is one of the truly seminal works of 20th century music, whose massive influence on later composers is belied by its relatively small size. The sense of ceremony, of ritual, the use of raw folk idioms and the clangorous percussion effects all made an immense impression on composers all the way from Orff in Carmina Burana to Bernstein in Chichester Psalms. It was a great achievement to produce such an idiomatic performance with a group of non-Russian singers. It’s not just the fluent pronunciation of the language (no mean task in music of such speed and rhythmic complexity); the voices themselves have been chosen for their earthy quality, just right for the piece. This applies most of all to the Simon Joly Chorale, who take the lead in what is essentially an ensemble piece, and sing with great style and vigour.

An enormously enjoyable and, for all admirers of this central figure of 20th century music, indispensable addition to the Stravinsky discography."




David Hurwitz
ClassicsToday.com, January 2005

Robert Craft leads a thrilling performance of Oedipus Rex--incisive, swift, and as mercilessly inevitable as fate itself. From the opening bars, where those spine-chilling runs in the trumpet penetrate the orchestral tutti like screams of horror, you can tell that Craft has every detail of this work (his second recording) well in hand, and so for that matter does the Philharmonia. Anyone who believes that Craft is a dull conductor should listen to this urgent account--from the great choruses (first announcing Jocasta's entrance, with particularly clear timpani and piano ostinatos, and later her death), to the Verdian energy he brings to the Oedipus/Jocasta duet in Act 2. It would have been even better if Craft had followed Stravinsky's lead in his own early-1960s recording: repeat the "Gloria" chorus with the opening Act 2 narration in the middle. It's not a major point, and strictly speaking it's not what's in the score; but it's such marvelous music, and hearing it twice simply doubles the pleasure.

As for the singers, they do well--for the most part. After some initial unsteadiness Martyn Hill settles down to close Act 1 most affectingly, and his singing in Act 2 is very good. Jennifer Lane's Jocasta sounds younger than, say, Jessye Norman's, and her lighter touch gets around the notes better than many a bigger, heavier voice. As Creon, David Wilson-Johnson offers disappointingly approximate pitch in his big Act 1 aria, but he does much better in the slower-moving proclamations of the Messenger. The smaller roles come off without any problems, and the Simon Joly Male Chorus sings more confidently than it did in Craft's Symphony of Psalms. Speaker Edward Fox sounds like a bored Oxford don, but at least he admirably refrains from the annoying histrionics that some bring to the part (particularly in its French-language version). And Craft naturally makes sure that as Stravinsky wanted, Fox pronounces the protagonist's name "Eedipus" as opposed to the chorus' "Oydipus".

Craft's Les Noces--he would with good reason prefer the Russian title "Svadebka"--is simply spectacular. Not only does it feature both superb playing by the four pianos and percussion and marvelous singing by soprano Alison Wells and Martyn Hill, but it's clear that Craft has invested a great deal of care and attention in getting clear articulation of the Russian text. This is critical because, as Craft explains in his notes, the music flows naturally from the speech-rhythms of the words. So many performances of this marvelous piece sound like garbled chanting in an unrecognizable tongue. Craft ensures that for once we really hear the Russian, and just as significantly he balances his forces perfectly so that singers and instrumentalists play off each other with an astonishing degree of rhythmic tension. The resulting explosion of color and energy (you can hear this at any point, but the transition from the third to the fourth scene offers an excellent example) has few if any equals in other performances--including Craft's earlier one on Music Masters. Ideally clear and focused sound completes this very desirable package, given new life thanks to Naxos (these performances previously appeared, differently coupled, on Koch).






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11:58:45 AM, 1 October 2014
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