Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Penguin Guide, January 2009

This was one of the first discs that Robert Craft recorded in his Stravinsky series, with the Symphony of Psalms as the centerpiece for a varied group of sacred choral pieces. Though it offers a clean, intense reading of the main work, it reaches full power only in the glorious final movement. The other works all come in clear, direct readings, with David Wilson-Johnson the Narrator in the strange movement, Babel, that Stravisky wrote on commission from the publisher Nathaniel Shilkret, illustrating the Bible story of the Tower of Babel. The programme opens with three haunting Russian Sacred Chorales which are immediately appealing and as idiomatic as one can expect from non-Russian singers. The recordings were made over a decade, between 1992 and 2002. Full documentation by Craft, but no texts. A bargain!

James H. North
Fanfare, April 2007

Craft understands Stravinsky's music better than anyone-his Naxos Le Sacre with the London Symphony is one of the great recordings-although he has not always been given forces capable of realizing his conceptions. His ongoing Stravinsky series struggled on the Koch label, but since Naxos took over it has been consistently fine. He has done particularly well by the choral works; the recent Les Noces was a revelation.

The Symphony of Psalms is the major work here, even though it is the final item on the disc. Craft's performance is very different from that led by Michael Gielen on a Hänssler CD, also reviewed for this issue. The impression received is that Gielen approaches this Symphony as an orchestral work with chorus, while Craft views it as a choral work with orchestra. The playing by the Philharmonia is less assertive than Gielen's, supporting the singers rather than making its own statement. Craft's Simon Joly Chorale is far more subtle than Gielen's singers, equally effective at hushed moments and in strident passages. Another impression: whereas Gielen strives to bring the music to life with orchestral thunder and choral shouts, Craft just lets it happen. There are of course moments that call for the orchestra to take charge, ff, and the Philharmonia rises to each occasion; its general reticence is a facet of Craft's artistry rather than any technical or musical insufficiency. Although Gielen scores in a few places, e.g., two glorious oboe solos that are important to this piece, the final impression is all Craft. His view of the work is gentler than most, but the Symphony of Psalms comes to life and remains with the listener long after the performance ends. Naxos was right to place it last on the CD.

One aspect of Stravinsky's genius was his enormous range; one must not play this disc through from start to finish, because each of these works inhabits its own universe. The three Russian sacred choruses (Pater noster, Ave Maria, and Credo) have both a folk-like charm and echoes of ancient religious chant; who but this master could bring off such a combination? Mass, written in New York, has often been sung and played with Big Apple intensity; Craft softens some overly acerbic harmonies and produces a most moving work. Is it possible that he has come to understandings of Stravinsky performance that escaped even the composer? Perhaps it is just that Craft, now in his eighties, is a more able conductor than was his mentor at that age, when he made many of the recordings we know him by.

Cantata shifts the focus again, as we jump geographically as well as musically: to an Elizabethan bridal song. Stravinsky's settings are recognizably English, despite harmonies unknown to that island, and the piece is one of his most ingratiating. The instrumental quintet consists of Fred Sherry, cello; Stephen Taylor and Melanie Field, oboes; Michael Parloff and Bart Feller, flutes. Mezzo and tenor are excellent, and the Gregg Smith Singers match their English peers in these three works, recorded in Purchase, New York. Babel, written in Los Angeles, takes us back to London's Abbey Road Studios and to the Simon Joly Chorale. The performance is exceptional, the narration clear, simple, and dramatic, unburdened by any plummy English accent, and the orchestral playing lovely. I've never liked the work so well.

Naxos's recordings at both sites do not impress by and of themselves, but they serve each work admirably. Craft's program notes are as fascinating as always. We are given texts only for Cantata; you can find most of the rest in your family Bible. One of the spectacular domes of Moscow's St. Basil's Cathedral (is it still called Red Square?) makes a fitting background for the booklet cover. This is an enormously satisfying disc, earning its place among Craft's best work and beside Sony's "Igor Stravinsky: The Recorded Legacy."

James McCarthy
Limelight, March 2007

Here is Stravinsky far removed from the luscious dazzle of his early ballet scores. This music here is austere, lean and to many of us, incredibly beautiful. The principal work on the disc, the Symphony of Psalms, is one of his greatest works. The rest of the CD is filled out with smaller religious works for choir and occasionally a small instrumental group. The reductive style of Three Russian Sacred Choruses is miraculous and very liturgical. What this composer could achieve with a handful of notes and chords never ceases to astonish.

The remaining works are also important compositions. The most significant amongst the shorter works on the disc is his Cantata, a spare work, with haunting repetitive phrases. The heart of the work, the longest section, is a setting for the tenor of Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day. The Symphony of Psalms was written in 1930. Given the composer’s own strict guidelines the range of musical expression is formidable. The work has always done well on record and this new, vibrant version is amongst the most compelling. I particularly like Craft’s edgy, at times aggressive, approach to the music. Stravinsky’s colleague and friend, the American Robert Craft has spent his lifetime in the service of the composer and his music. More recently he has committed some very good performances to disc. In this latest Naxos release, with excellent forces from New York and London, his high standards are again on show.

Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International, December 2006

This is volume 6 of the ‘Robert Craft Collection’, and one which will justifiably be snapped up by all fans and collectors of this excellent edition. Naxos projects of this nature more often than not go beyond just clever marketing these days, bringing us gently through musically verdant  but thoroughly completist paths, the fruits of which bear lesser-known works which are placed alongside core repertoire to tempt the casual buyer. Compared with the 1991 Sony ‘Igor Stravinsky Edition’ in which all of his sometimes hard to digest sacred works were dumped together in one box, Naxos offer the prize of the Symphony of Psalms as a reward for surviving some of these less overtly popular but ultimately rather appealing other choral works.

The opening choruses are a capella works which use Slavonic texts, and were intended for use in the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church, which forbids the use of musical instruments. All of them have a compact and deceptively simple character, a little like Poulenc’s ‘Motets’, using chant and antique modes to carry the traditional texts. Like the recordings Stravinsky conducted in the mid 1960s, the singers are quite closely miked, but with impeccable intonation there is no cause for concern. Craft is considerably brisker than Stravinsky himself, gaining a little in raw energy and accuracy of ensemble where the earlier recordings have a little more dynamic variety.

These little gems are beautifully sung, and the high standard of the Gregg Smith Singers carries on into the Mass almost unscathed. It is of course a deeply ingrained part of this group’s repertoire, their 1960 incarnation having also recorded this work with Stravinsky. This earlier recording is of course an important source. While Craft has the benefit of better tuned bass notes in the opening of the Kyrie there is in fact little to choose between the two versions & the timings are fairly similar for one thing. The new recording is however smoother, Stravinsky’s own possessing a different kind of restrained eloquence. On average, Craft’s soloists are easier on the ear, his winds warmer and a touch more accurate. Stravinsky plays more with the internal dynamics of the music, drawing a more personal and moving character from this, one of his most personal statements. There are some grimly out of tune entries in the historic recording however, and Craft’s beautifully disciplined forces win in the end – certainly for repeated listening.

Unlike the previous two works, the Cantata is in fact secular. Referring once again to Stravinsky’s 1965-6 recording one is immediately struck by the close microphone placements of the earlier version - it’s as if singers and musicians are sitting or standing right in front of you, which is an interesting, if not entirely comfortable experience. Craft’s forces are placed more realistically, at a respectful distance from the listener, and with a pleasant halo of resonance provide acoustic glue. Mary Ann Hart’s solo is entirely clear, and suits the setting nicely, blending or rising above the cool instrumental textures in a natural and unforced fashion. I compared this new recording to Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the London Sinfonietta and L.S. Chorus (Sony 1991). Female soloist on this recording is Yvonne Kenny, whose singing I have admired for many years. Salonen is brisker in tempi in the Ricercar movements, so that the solo lines become more declamatory. He is slower in the Lyke-Wake Dirge movements, and the character of his performance does seem to relate more to The Rake’s Progress, to which this piece was a kind of continuation – Stravinsky having a strong urge to use another English language text after completing his only opera, this time without the dramatic context. Craft’s soloists have a softer-voiced character, and the whole thing is less pungent by comparison, emphasising the lyrical nature of the music and making it milder and easier to swallow – its 24 cyclical minutes being a fairly long ‘sit’ by comparison with some of Stravinsky’s other works. This is not to say that the performance is without drama, and the penultimate Westron Wind movement is as urgent as one could wish.

The cantata Babel was composed as one part of a seven-work cycle by different composers, commissioned by Nathaniel Shilkret, himself a composer. The spoken text is taken very well by David Wilson-Johnson, more overtly dramatic than John Calicos, the narrator on Stravinsky’s 1962 Toronto recording, but never overly histrionic. The orchestra is on top form and the choral entries are stunning, promising great things for the Symphony of Psalms.

Expectations have to be high for Robert Craft’s Symphony of Psalms, and to a great extent they are realised. Taking Stravinsky as comparison once again (the CBC Symphony Orchestra on Columbia-Sony) it is hardly surprising that Craft employs similar tempi. I rummaged around and forked out my Lorin Maazel/Bayerischen Rundfunks recording (RCA 1998) in order to escape the grip of the Stravinsky/Craft axis, and here you can hear how swifter, less indulgent tempi can also work well – Stravinsky was after all an elderly man when he made his recording. Maazel shaves a good 30 seconds from the first movement, which in a 3 minute piece is quite a hefty shift in proportion. I have a feeling that Craft’s tempi would work beautifully in an acoustic with just a little more elbow-room. Abbey Road Studio I is a grand venue, but doesn’t ‘expand’ in quite the way Craft’s approach would seem to demand. I seem to remember Tilson Thomas’s LSO recording on Sony also having been done there, and I ditched that version many moons ago. Stiffer competition comes with one-time BBC Radio 3 top ‘Building a Library’ choice, one from 1964 with the Czech Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Karel An?erl on Supraphon. While the oboes seem to have vibrato on top of their vibrato this recording does have maximum dramatic impact, cracking playing and singing in general, and almost entirely convincing pacing. An?erl’s first two movements are swifter, and he saves the timeless until the end, lingering over the last Laudate Deo to beyond slowness and as a result coming in 24 seconds over Craft in the finale.

Doubts concerning Psalms v. Abbey Road aside the singing and playing is top notch, and if you know and love the elderly Stravinsky Columbia recording then you will love this new one. Craft allows the music to speak for itself, much as Stravinsky does, giving the players room to phrase and perform expressively, but never over-pitching the solo lines and spoiling the balance – which is no mean feat in the Symphony of Psalms. The arching form of the second movement is superbly sustained, its 7 minutes seeming like a gorgeous eternity which continues into the final Psalm 150. The finale builds well, but there are one or two moments when you might have wished for just a little more forward motion. Craft’s slowness is true to the proportions of the interpretation as a whole, but with the preponderance of low instruments (the score contains no upper strings) you have to accept Craft’s vision completely or sometimes find yourself struggling to advance inside a deep-sea diver’s suit. With the beginning of the final, timeless Laudate Craft seems entirely vindicated however – the religious ecstasy being complete, as we are transported up that never-ending staircase to heaven.

There is no doubt about it, on previous experience and current evidence, Naxos’ Robert Craft Collection will ultimately stand alongside Stravinsky’s own ‘complete’ edition, enhancing, complimenting and often improving on it as it goes – to ignore it would seem to defy all reason.

Malcolm Hayes
Classic FM, December 2006

Any Stravinsky recording making the point that the 20th century's paramount composer wrote more than just a few early ballet scores (however great those are) is resoundingly welcome, and even more so at Naxos's bargain price. While the main offering here is the serenely magnificent Symphony of Psalms, performed with outstanding crispness and clarity, there's much else too. Highlights include Stravinsky's simple and beautiful Lord's Prayer and Credo for unaccompanied choir (in Russian), and his masterly setting of the Latin Mass for chorus and wind ensemble.

If you're curious to explore beyond The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, don't hesitate.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group