Stravinsky Persephone In German

Now here’s a real oddity. Admirers of the great tenor Fritz Wunderlich, will be, I think, surprised to discover that in 1960 he gave this one-off performance, in German, of Stravinsky’s quintessentially French-language work Perséphone. In fact, Wunderlich was a committed performer of  modern music, including Berg, Janacek, and Orff; he was particularly associated with Stravinsky’s hieratic, latin-texted Oedipus Rex. But Perséphone is unusual; it is a gentle, haunting, melodrama, with a libretto written by André Gide, and the original commissioner was the actress and dancer Ida Rubinstein, who also commissioned Debussy’s Martyre de Saint Sébastian and Honegger’s Jean d’Arc au Bûcher. Despite Stravinsky and Gide mutually disliking each other’s contributions, Perséphone is, I think, an entirely successful work; so much so that, having heard it many times in its idiomatic French original it initially struck me as unimaginable with a German-language text. But in this live recording Wunderlich entirely convinces in the extended tenor solo line, admirably assisted by actress Doris Schade in the speaking role; their manner and diction has exactly the melancholy elegance that the piece demands, and the recorded sound is quite acceptable.

Those wary of Stravinsky’s music should not be put off; his neoclassical works of the second quarter of the 20th century resemble Mozart or Gluck more than the Rite of Spring; he even wrote ballets based on the music of Pergolesi (Pulcinella) and Tchaikovsky (the Fairy’s Kiss). While Perséphone is recognisably modern music, there is a lyricism and harmonic simplicity that is refreshingly innocent-sounding—the ‘innocence’ of utter sophistication, of course, perfectly caught in Wunderlich and Schade’s interpretations. In another first, the conductor of this beautifully-judged concert performance was the Afro-American Dean Dixon, who had a substantial career in Europe from the 50s to the 70s—he apparently even conducted the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Oddity or not, at 50 minutes Perséphone is an entirely ingratiating and limpid work that does not overstay its welcome, and charms through understatement. Annoyingly, the text is not included in the liner booklet, which seems a strange oversight. But let’s face it, few will buy this in order to hear Stravinsky in German; most will obtain it to broaden their appreciation of Wunderlich’s talent.

Review reprinted with permission of Thomas’ Music.