Simon Rattle's tenure at the podium of the Berlin Philharmonic has not been easy, but the orchestra's sound on this recent release, recorded live in September 2007 in Berlin, is as impressive as ever. The centerpiece of this all-Stravinsky program is the Symphony of Psalms, the most famous of the composer's symphonies. It was commissioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra by Serge Koussevitzky, for the ensemble's 50th anniversary season. Rattle chooses to perform it in the 1948 revised version, in which, according to Eric Walter White, most of the changes are corrections and additions of articulation marks, with a few parts added for low brass and timpani. The only major change is in the last movement's tempo markings, making especially the final section not as fast.
Stravinsky, Sy. of Psalms, Sy. in C, Sy. in Three Movements, Berlin Philharmonic, S. Rattle
(released July 8, 2008)
EMI Classics 50999 2 076330 0 8
Stravinsky was drawn to the psalms ostensibly because of his recent reconversion to the Orthodox Christianity of his upbringing. Somewhat strangely, he chose to set not Russian liturgical texts, but sections of three psalms in the Latin Vulgate translation. The work has a unique sound because Stravinsky uses an unusual palette, omitting violins, violas, and clarinets and calling for large numbers of others (5 flutes, 4 oboes, 3 bassoons, 4 trumpets). Furthermore, Stravinsky wanted children's voices on the upper choral parts but allowed for women's voices instead, which is what is found here in the Rundfunkchor Berlin. In all three symphonies, Rattle focuses on the activity of intersecting rhythms, in a reading that is viscerally exciting.
Although there are at least two previous recordings by the Berlin Phil (conducted by Boulez and Karajan), this is the only one to combine the Symphony of Psalms with the two other best symphonies of Stravinsky. My least favorite is the Symphony in C, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1940. In an EMI promotional video, Rattle notes that the Berliners had not played the work since the 1980s, and the intensive rehearsals he describes produce a taut, somewhat agitated performance. The piece that pleases the most is the Symphony in Three Movements, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in 1946. It is a work I do not know all that well, but Rattle's reading is so alluring, with verve and lightness in first movement's jagged rhythms, and suavity in the luscious slow movement. Am I the only one to hear Copland's influence in the introduction to the third movement?