It has been 14 years since John Eliot Gardiner last conducted the Berlin Philharmonic. He marked his return with a remarkable performance of one of Stravinsky’s most forbidding works.
Oedipus Rex is an opera-oratorio written in Latin, formally strict and more musical than dramatic. Only Jean Cocteau’s narrative, delivered in the vernacular, signposts the drama for the audience. The composer instructed that the singers wear masks, and that it be staged with minimum movement. Otto Klemperer said it is peopled with “ancient statues come to life”.
Gardiner is a master at finding hidden power in tight structures. A legendary interpreter of early music and particularly Bach, he is also a seasoned conductor of Stravinsky, and found great emotive depth in the austere writing of Oedipus.
The Berlin Philharmonic was virtuosic and exact, bringing to vivid life the score’s plethora of musical styles, from Verdi to Bach. The cast of young soloists were superb. Andrew Staples burst out of the dramatic strictures (despite being disabled by a leg cast!) as Oedipus, bringing a mellifluous beauty and frailty to the doomed King of Thebes. The Berlin Rundfunk chorus had a gut-trembling force as the men of Thebes.
This was an awe-inspiring ensemble feat with an incredible sense of pathos.
Oedipus was coupled with Stravinsky’s ballet Apollon Musagète, another neoclassical work drawing from Greek myth.
The ballet, in which the god Apollo is visited by three muses, is minimal and delicate, using classical form and gesture. The string ensemble of the Berlin Philharmonic gave the work a heady romanticism, with yearning, Mahlerian melodic lines and a gloriously fluid texture and tempo. This was Stravinsky with a distinctly Bohemian accent.
Oedipus Rex with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Berlin Philharmonic is broadcast live from the Digital Concert Hall on 4 June, 7pm (CEST)