Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (CD review)

Also, Symphonies of Wind Instruments; Apollon musagete. Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic. EMI Classics 50999 7 23611 2.

Sir Simon Rattle remains one of the more glamorous big-name conductors in the world today and the Berlin Philharmonic one of the greatest of all orchestras. So it’s always a welcome treat when they release a new recording. The only minor snag is that either Rattle himself or the realities of the economy too often demand the making of those recordings live, a process I don’t usually like. There are maybe a handful of live recordings I’ve ever felt sounded as good as or better than a studio production. Be that as it may, EMI made this new issue in concert, and for me it diminishes the sound somewhat. But that’s just me, and I know that many listeners prefer the excitement and spontaneity of the live experience, and, fortunately, EMI spare us any applause.

Anyway, this time Rattle and his Berlin players tackle Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring, 1947 revision) by the Russian-born U.S. composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). The Rite, of course, is among the most influential and controversial works of the twentieth century, and I remember reading an interview with the composer reminiscing about its premiere: He said people booed him out of the concert hall, and he had to leave by a side door, the music so outraged the audience. Today, we accept the ballet as one of the staples of the classical repertoire.

Theatergoers at the premiere, apparently used to elegant, refined dance music in their ballets, had no idea what Stravinsky was up to with his savage, often ferocious beats describing some kind of ancient fertility rite. The composer subtitled it “Pictures from Pagan Russia,” and one can understand why.

The score’s driving rhythms helped shape the path of subsequent twentieth-century music, making Stravinsky not only controversial but genuinely revolutionary. The question is how to approach it in the twenty-first century when practically every conductor on Earth, including Rattle in an earlier EMI recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, has already had his or her way with it. Certainly, it still needs a good deal of fire and passion in its presentation, such as the renditions we’ve had from Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony (Decca or JVC), Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI), Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (Sony), and the composer himself (Sony). What we find here is Maestro Rattle and his virtuosic Berlin players coming through with plenty of civility and an appropriate enthusiasm when needed.

In the Rite’s “First Part: Adoration of the Earth,” Rattle approaches the score in a mature and dignified manner, particularly during the opening sections. The “Dances of the Young Girls” builds to a befittingly solid climax, if without some of the energy we hear from the aforementioned Solti or Muti. Rattle contents himself more with the beauty of the music than with all of its overt vitality. Even so, he captures the score’s rhythmic surges pretty well, maintaining a steady forward momentum throughout.

Thus, what we get here is a cultured approach to the first part of the score, with not quite enough red-blooded, gut-thumping liveliness in the reading for my taste. However, this is only a comparative reaction after living so long with Solti and Muti, as I say. In his own manner, Rattle presents a good argument for the music’s inner pleasures. And, in any case, when the conductor does let loose, as in the “Dance of the Earth,” he is as exciting as anyone.

In the "Second Part: The Sacrifice," Stravinsky combined an exceptional lyricism with an intense desire to conjure up a full breakthrough of spring after a frozen Russian winter. It's where the composer put his real meat and potatoes, and it's here that I enjoyed Rattle's interpretation a bit more. Maybe he just wanted to work into things slowly for a bigger effect at the end. So, in Rattle's hands, we get an emphasis on the atmosphere and poetic beauty of the score, with the more rambunctious parts taking care of themselves. Nevertheless, it's hard to forget the Solti, Bernstein, Muti, and Stravinsky recordings, along with others from Boulez (Sony) and Nott (Tudor) that also provided an abundance of beauty and excitement in the work.

Standing in stark contrast to the wild gyrations of The Rite we get as companion pieces on the disc the relatively traditional (though modern) Symphony of Wind Instruments and the neoclassical ballet Apollon musagete (the 1947 version of the original premiered in 1928). The latter is particularly lovely, sounding as much Romantic as it does classical. Rattle and his team perform both works wonderfully, with much luster and polish.

The disc’s sound is ultra quiet for its being recorded in concert. EMI made The Rite in 2012 and the other pieces in 2007 and 2011 at the Philharmonie, Berlin, where we find no noise whatsoever in the recording, no coughs, no wheezes, no shuffling of feet or paper, and, as I said earlier, no applause. I suspect, though, that EMI applied a degree of noise reduction because the sound is somewhat soft and almost too smooth in its response. While it doesn’t affect detailing much, it makes the slightly close-up miking a bit disconcerting for ultimate realism; one would expect a brighter, more well-defined sound at that range. In addition, the low end and dynamics vary a bit, from a little restricted to strong and punchy, with an especially impressive bass drum. Highs sound well extended, which is good, but depth is a tad limited, which isn’t, putting the overall sonic presentation on the dicey side. No doubt, though, it’s easy on the ear.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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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.

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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