Barbican review: LSO, Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner, Barbican, London

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With performances of Apollon musagète and Oedipus Rex, John Eliot Gardiner has chosen to celebrate his seventieth birthday with two masterpieces from Stravinsky’s neo-classical period which could not be more different.

The first is a ravishing ballet score which has been somewhat put in the shade by Stravinsky’s ballet Orpheus, whose every note reflects divine inspiration. The second is Stravinsky’s monumental opera-oratorio in Latin (with a linking commentary by Jean Cocteau) based on Sophocles’ tragedy of the incestuous and parricidal king.  

Apollon portrays the master being born, then coaching his Muses, then disappearing on Mount Parnassus. Scored for strings only, and in major diatonic keys, the work was described by its choreographer George Balanchine as ‘white-on-white’, but as Gardiner and the ensemble drawn from the London Symphony Orchestra delivered it, the impression was rather one of warmth.

Apollo emerged with grave decorum, the Bach-like violin solo in the first variation were exquisitely played, and the four-part canon for the dance of the god and his pupils flowered serenely; the little catches of breath in Terpsichore’s number were perfectly judged. But the pas de deux - which ought to have an airy transparency - recalled Strauss at his most syrupy and went at a sluggish pace. The Coda rocked as it should, but the Apotheosis – where the sound needs to be terraced, to give the impression of receding into infinite space – was completely shorn of its magic.

Stravinsky settled on the Oedipus story as being one which his audience would know, and on Latin for its resonance as a ‘sacred’ language; he wanted this work to be performed in a ‘static’ manner, with its soloists masked and its chorus hidden. With face-painted soloists and the ‘gentlemen’ of the Monteverdi Choir got up like a ghostly crowd, and with Fanny Ardant lending a Cocteau-ish touch as narrator, Gardiner gave this Rashomon-like tale a pounding momentum which didn’t let up for a second.

Stuart Skelton (Oedipus), Gidon Saks (Creon), and Jennifer Johnston (Jocasta) made superb, larger-than-life protagonists, with additional soloists emerging from the ranks. The echoes of Bach (in the choruses) and of Verdi and Bellini (in the arias) rang out majestically, with the LSO on top form. Powered throughout by four fateful chords, this was a world suffused with fear and horror, and when the crowd expressed its pity as the self-blinded king stumbled away, there was no comfort in the sound.

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