Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (CD review)

Also, Revueltas: La noche de los mayas. Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. DG B0014281-02.

One may initially flinch upon learning that the disc has two potential drawbacks: The performing ensemble is a youth orchestra, and DG made the recording live. Nevertheless, if you give it a chance, you may come to see that these possible handicaps are hardly detriments at all.

Russian-born composer, pianist, and conductor Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) came to prominence with his music for the ballets L'Oiseau de feu (The Firebird), 1910, Petrushka, 1911, and Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), 1913, the latter causing quite a stir in its day and establishing the composer as bad boy of classical music. Its pounding beats also helped shape the path of subsequent twentieth-century music, making Stravinsky not only controversial but a true revolutionary. Today, we accept The Rite of Spring as an established classic, but, obviously, it wasn't always so.

Gustavo Dudamel is a relatively young (b. 1981) Venezuelan conductor who came to fame through his energetic leadership of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, a fame that has led him to the principal conductorship of the Gothenburg Symphony, Sweden, and the musical directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

For the present recording, Dudamel chose to perform The Rite of Spring, a piece of music tailor-made to fit his temperament and the orchestra's, all of them full of vim, vigor, and vitality. And that's certainly how they play the Stravinsky, for all it's worth.

The "Introduction" to Part I, The Adoration of the Earth, is appropriately soft and hushed, leading to an explosive opening of the "Spring" and "Game" sections, falling back to a subdued yet portentous set of "Rondes," helped by the strong impact of DG's sonics. He then whips up a small storm with the "Rival Tribes," followed by an almost deathly silence before the eruptions of the "Sage" and the "Dance of the Earth."

We get a similar treatment of Part II, The Sacrifice. It is spooky, pulsating, tempestuous, poetic, red-hot, tender, and brutal by turns. Dudamel says the music has the energy of youth, so it's a pleasure for him to play the piece with a youth orchestra. He might have added that it must have been a pleasure to work with an orchestra of youngsters who don't sound in any way like youngsters but like remarkably polished, adult professionals.

The accompanying piece, La noche de los mayas (The Night of the Mayas), by Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940), has a similar rhythmic energy to The Rite of Spring. This time, however, the conductor hasn't quite as heavy-duty a score with which to work, Revueltas having written his music as a movie score. It is, understandably, a little more fragmented and a little less radical than the Stravinsky piece. Still, it carries us through a most-festive experience, the percussion standing out and selling the music, especially in the final, rambunctious movement.

Is any of this more than just surface gloss?  If it is, it's pretty exciting gloss; maybe not a first choice in the material but worthy of a listen.

DG recorded the performances live in early 2010, but you'd hardly notice they were live until an unfortunate applause erupts at the end of the program, ruining the mood. Otherwise, the audience is quiet, and the sound is fairly good. There is good orchestral depth, and while the midrange is sometimes a tad veiled, the extremely wide dynamics and tremendous impact tend to make up for it. The upper midrange can be a bit forward, though, and at times downright fierce. Happily, it is not entirely distracting.

On a final note, I would note that the disc's output is on the low side, perhaps to accommodate the wide dynamic range, so you may need to turn up the gain on your amplifier a touch more than you might usually have it set.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa