Bernstein made the recording “Oedipus Rex” primarily so that he could use it to demonstrate some points from this latest Norton lecture on stylistic misalliances. He argued that in composing this version of ancient Greek tragedy – which uses a Latin translation of Jean Cocteau’s French version – Stravinsky somehow found resonances with Verdi, particularly “Aida”. It may sound incongruous, Bernstein said. But what matters, he explained, is that somewhere deep in Stravinsky’s consciousness “the basic metaphor contained in ‘Aida’ is inscribed, glued and connected to the corresponding deep metaphor in “Odipe Rex”.
The score “Odipus” begins with a four-note motif, strongly harmonized by the choir and the orchestra, in which the inhabitants of Thebes implore Odipus to save the city from a deadly plague. Bernstein, in his lecture, convincingly connects this motif to a pleading phrase sung by Aida, imploring Princess Amneris, her kidnapper and rival in love, to have mercy on her.
Bernstein’s performance of this opening explosion is emphatic and anguished, and significantly slower than in Stravinsky’s own recording. Bernstein maintains this grave tone throughout the score, making the most of the passages with sinuous Verdian lyricism; juice of each crispy pairing; and, if necessary, let the choir and orchestra soar with clipped rhythmic intensity.
The Sony box also offers invigorating interpretations of the chamber work “The Soldier’s Story” and the Octet for woodwind instruments, which Bernstein recorded with musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1947. I also like them. tales from the Piano Concerto and Wind Instruments, with Seymour Lipkin as piano soloist, and “Petrushka” (the 1947 version) with the New York Philharmonic. (As a bonus, there’s also a recording of Bernstein discussing Stravinsky and his ballet “Petrushka”.)
As it turned out, my last direct encounter with Bernstein involved the “Rite” as well. In the summer of 1987 in Tanglewood, three years before his death, he spent a week rehearsing a large orchestra of college-aged players for a performance of the piece. Although rehearsals were closed to the public, I was a freelance critic for the Boston Globe at the time and was allowed to watch them. Sometimes I even sat on stage, behind the players, to see Bernstein in front of them.