Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex/Apollon Musagete (LSO Live)

Verdict: English conductor celebrates his 70th in Stravinskian style

John Eliot Gardiner is best known for authentic performances of music from Monteverdi to Berlioz, having set up such groups as the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists.

Yet, to mark his 70th birthday last year, the English conductor presided over an all-Stravinsky concert with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Forget The Firebird and Petrushka -- Gardiner turned to works from the 1920s, typical of Stravinsky's almost suspiciously approachable neoclassical style.

These splendid performances of the 1927 Oedipus Rex and 1928 Apollon Musagete are now available on CD.


Oedipus Rex is a delight. The French writer Jean Cocteau supplied a spoken introduction and running commentary (delectably delivered by actor Fanny Ardant), which connects this playful yet moving take on Sophocles' ancient tragedy.

The music is a sheer joy. Choral chants, sturdily handled by the men of the Monteverdi Choir, are the missing link between the composer's Les Noces and Orff's Carmina Burana.

Stravinsky bewitches as he roves around an encyclopedia of musical styles. Early on, baritone Gidon Saks has fun with Creon's first aria, moving from a nudge at Mozart's Tuba Mirum to a bubbling arioso taken at a pony-trap canter.

Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, who gave us a fine Das Lied von der Erde with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in 2010, excels from his first appearance with what could be only described as a tenor aria to end all tenor arias.

English mezzo Jennifer Johnston shows the same virtuosity. In Jocasta's plea to the argumentative menfolk, she emerges from lavish sweeps of harp and piano to work through a brilliant catalogue, with winks at composers from Verdi to Offenbach.

If Oedipus Rex reveals the spectacular side of the LSO, then the orchestra's strings show finesse in Apollon Musagete.

This 1928 ballet, choreographed by Balanchine, showing three muses paying tribute to the almighty Apollo, is almost shameless in its clear tonalities, a few Stravinskian barbs notwithstanding. Gardiner catches its grace and knowing humour, from the double-dotted rhythms of its opening movement, to Apollo's first turn, in which Bachian solo violin submits to an orchestral takeover.