Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (HDCD review)

Also, Messiaen: L’Ascension. Christoph Eschenbach; Erich Bergel; Houston Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HDCD261.

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 folks at HDTT transferred the Stravinsky piece (recorded at Jones Hall, Houston, Texas, in 1987) from a 16-bit Betamax master converted using a Sony PCM501ES digital processor feeding a Digital Audio Denmark analog-to-digital converter at 24/192 resolution. HDTT remastered the Messiaen piece from a 1979 recording on analog half-track tape, 15 ips, with dbx type 1 encoding (the transfer made from an archival 16-bit Betamax backup) converted as before. So, interestingly, the source material is not particularly “audiophile”; it is HDTT’s meticulous remastering and careful disc transfer that make all the difference.

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.

For further information about the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.

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.

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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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa