About a month before listening to this live recording of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), I reviewed another, newer live recording from an even more glamorous orchestra and conductor, the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle, which I liked largely for its lyrical grace. Here, in this HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) remastering of a 1987 recording, we find the Houston Symphony under Maestro Christoph Eschenbach. While the Houston players do not match the Berlin ensemble for sheer virtuosity, Eschenbach and his Houston players turn in a splendid performance, and one can hardly beat the realism of the sound.
As you are aware, The Rite of Spring rightfully takes its place among the most influential and controversial works of the twentieth century. I recall 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, of course, 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. Nor did they understand the choreography of the first performance. The composer subtitled his work “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 these days is how to approach it in the twenty-first century when practically every conductor on Earth, including Stravinsky himself, has already had his or her way with it. Certainly, the music’s combination of lyrical charm, fire, and passion need to come into the equation, and on balance I’d say the composer had things just right (Sony) in his own recording. Other renditions have emphasised the power of the work, like Sir Georg Solti’s recording with the Chicago Symphony (Decca or JVC); or the fierceness of it, like Riccardo Muti’s performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI) or Leonard Bernstein’s with the New York Philharmonic (Sony); or the analytical aspects, like Boulez’s recording with the Cleveland Orchestra.
With Maestro Eschenbach we get a well-proportioned approach, making it a good all-around performance choice; when you add in the beautifully remastered sound, it comes close to being a top-of-the-line choice. If it only weren’t for the slight audience noise and applause, that is. You do have to like the “sound” of a live recording, and I recognize that many people do.
Anyway, in Part One: The Adoration of the Earth, Eschenbach offers up an atmospheric Introduction and Augurs of Spring, with well-developed rhythms that never seem merely like a series of starts and stops. Although the aforementioned Rattle performance has the upper hand in matters of outright beauty and skill, Eschenbach more than compensates with evenly rising tensions and monumental crescendos. This is a ballet one can easily see dancers being able to handle without breaking their necks. When the big, rambunctious moments arrive, the Houston brass and percussion sections rise to the occasion, and Eschenbach delivers the needed excitement.
In Part Two: The Exalted Sacrifice, Eschenbach continues to show his understanding of Stravinsky by never pressing forward too fast but quietly building the atmospheric suspense. Still, he never loses the pulse of the music. Indeed, it is the score’s interludes of near silence that point up the extensive outbursts all the better. It’s a fine, spontaneous, well-thought-out interpretation that bears repetition.
French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was in addition an organist and ornithologist, that last pursuit somewhat relevant to the disc’s coupling, L’Ascension (1933). Messiaen admired Stravinsky’s Rite for its rhythms and color, and although he worked largely in a religious context, he combined some of Stravinsky’s technique with his own methods, along with the occasional sounds of birds. Conductor Erich Bergel conducts the Houston Symphony in this one, and the piece makes a fascinating comparison and contrast with Stravinsky’s music, sharing some of its pictorial bearing.
The results sound superb. You will hear a realistic sense of dimensionality, width, depth, and air, with a lifelike hall ambience. You will also hear good midrange transparency, well-extended highs, and thundering lows. Moreover, you’ll find a strong impact within a context of wide dynamics, further emphasizing the feeling of reality. However, the softest notes almost diminish into silence, tempting one to turn up the gain. I advise against it. The bass whacks in track ten, for instance, sound as though they could do some serious woofer damage. Yet there is an exceptional smoothness about the sound, which is remarkable given the amount of detail involved. Overall, we find a very natural-sounding response without being in-your-face about its focus and clarity. A small degree of audience noise from time to time is the only minor fly in the ointment, along with an unwelcome (at least, by me) burst of applause at the end.
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To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here: