Stravinsky: Threni

From The Turntable

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Schola Cantorum, soloists, the composer conducting. Columbia ML 5383.

Threni is the most recent (1958) of Stravinsky's works on records. (The latest work of all, Movements for Piano and Orchestra, received its first performance on Sunday.) The old composer, whose denunciations of the twelve-tone method used to be famous, has now written a piece derived almost entirely from on twelve-tone row. Everyone knew it was coming: the direction of the wind could be ascertained in 192, with the inversions and retrogrades of the Cantata; then real twelve-tone sections appeared in Canticum Sacrum and Agon: then came Threni ("Threnodies"), a long (for Stravinsky) setting of texts from the Vulgate Lamentations of Jeremiah. Nor was it hard to predict that this piece would sound like Stravinsky, and not like the Viennese, the young serialists, or anybody else. I did find one or two places which reminded me that Stravinksy has been studying Webern (curiously, one of these, the Invocavi, but that was all.

The explanation for this personal kind of writing begins with the basic row, which is full of fourths and conspicuously low on highly dissonant intervals like minor seconds, thereby permitting continual suggestions of tonality, while orthodox twelve-tone theory axiomatically excludes anything tonal. (Concerning Threni, Stravinsky has mentioned the "triadic references in every bar.") Also, the series is fragmented, transposed and otherwise manipulated so that lines recall Oedipus Rex and the Canticum instead of Schoenberg. The rhythm and scoring is all Stravinksy; in particular the reserved, consciously archaic Stravinksy of the past few years; more reflective, less apparently expressive than, say, Krenek's twelve-tone setting of Jeremiah, also deliberately archaic in its way.

Krenek's pathos in instantly communicative, the pain is very near the surface. Threni seems more akin to the Lamentationes of Tallis, written almost 400 years ago; both rely on low timbres and an introspective polyphony that seems to express the recollection of pain rather than its direct experience.

Threni is really a series of canonic passages, generally sung by soloists, punctuated by choral enunciations of the Hebrew letters that divide the text. The letters are short, frequently no more that a bar, and gentle, in the manner of Orpheus and the Sonata for two pianos. The considerable body of instruments is never used all at once, but broken into chamber-like groups; even then the instrumental comments are decidedly laconic. Exceptionally, the first movement includes a remarkable passage for tenor and fluegelhorn in free canon, while low sopranos, altos and low violins tremolandi move about restlessly. The peculiar, dark tone of the fluegelhorn (alto bugle) is oddly appropriate in this setting of the most terrible portions of the text. But the canons are the heart of the work. These are uncompromisingly bare of ornamentation, often unaccompanied; every consideration is excluded except the row and its transformations into lines and combinations of lines. This might be the point to ask: Does the piece have anything to say? The formal, declamatory style is not particularly friendly, nor are the most ingratiating sections meant for casual listening. I found Threni frequently affecting, although in parts the gray was unrelieved. More hearings might easily produce a different view.

The orchestra plays well; the chorus is small enough to give a clear account of the pitches. Unfortunately, the soloists' pitches are sometimes obscured if there is too much vibrato going. When four men are singing dissonances, vibrato must be drastically reduced or a clinging fog prevails. And Robert Oliver's voice, though it may have the lowest range in the Western Hemisphere, is not a very beautiful instrument. The recording is excellent, but recordings in general are still far from "faithful"--we see the piano and sarrusophone unison in the score, but only in the concert hall do we hear the piano. EDGAR MURRAY