John Eliot Gardiner celebrated his 70th birthday a year ago last month, and over the course of his 50- year career, he has rightfully established himself as an internationally renowned conductor and pedagogue. Although regarded primarily as an interpreter of music from the Baroque and Classical periods, Gardiner’s talents have also extended to include such composers as Beethoven, Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Massenet. Nevertheless, it’s not often he has approached 20th century repertoire, so this new CD featuring Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète and Oedipus Rex recorded live at his birthday concert in April 2013 with the London Symphony Orchestra is something of a rarity.
The ballet Apollon Musagète for string orchestra was completed in January 1928, the result of a commission from the Library of Congress. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Gardiner would be drawn to music written by the Russian composer during his neo-classical period. So just how does the founder of the Monteverdi Choir deal with Stravinsky? In a word, admirably! Here, the listener immediately senses what great care Gardiner has taken with this performance, with no detail left untouched. The LSO strings are warmly resonant with the ensemble achieving a fine of sense of balance in the ten contrasting movements.
Oedipus Rex, completed a year earlier, is a tougher nut to crack. Part opera, part oratorio, the work was based on Sophocles with a libretto by Jean Cocteau and then translated into Latin. Its mixture of musical styles can make it a challenge to bring off convincingly, but here, Gardiner and the LSO - along with the Monteverdi Choir and soloists that include Jennifer Johnston, Stuart Skelton and Gordon Saks – achieve a wonderful sense of drama at times infused with wry humour.
Refusing to be typecast, Gardiner first gained acclaim through his performances of early music, but now succeeds at the other end of the spectrum, proving to be as adept at Stravinsky as he is with Monteverdi or Mozart.