When I first started seriously collecting classical records back in the Sixties and Seventies, I always admired the performances of Columbia (CBS) recording artists like Leonard Bernstein, George Szell, Bruno Walter, and Eugene Ormandy. But the sound of their recordings always disappointed me, most often being thin, bright, shrill, and devoid of anything resembling deep bass. Then along came the digital age in the early Eighties, and I sent away for a Japanese remastered CD of Ormandy’s Holiday for Orchestra, originally an LP from the Sixties. What a revelation; the engineers had opened up the frequency response and dynamic range, creating a whole new sonic world I’d never heard before from a Columbia/CBS product. Then when Sony took over the CBS catalogue in the late Eighties and began remastering many of the old titles themselves, I found a new wealth of material to enjoy. So, perhaps you can understand my delight when the folks at Sony told me they had completely remastered Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a recording they had already transferred to CD years before but this time have done up even better.
While Bernstein would go on to record The Rite of Spring two more times in stereo, a second for CBS and then one for DG, this first stereo version remains my favorite. It may have been among the composer's favorites, too, because upon hearing Bernstein's interpretation, I've read Stravinsky had one word for it: "Wow!" Of course, the composer may have simply been being sarcastic. In any event, there is no doubt the recording had an effect on him.
Bernstein described The Rite saying, “Only one of your everyday volcanic masterpieces...a miraculous new creation of such originality and power that still today it shocks and overwhelms us.” I’d say “Volcanic,” “miraculous,” “originality,” and “power” are words that might well describe Bernstein’s 1958 recording, too. Bernstein at the time was just taking over the reins of the New York Philharmonic and about to shape it back into the best ensemble it had ever been. The Rite was only the beginning.
The thing with The Rite is that at the ballet’s Paris premiere in 1913, it (and, to be fair, the choreography) so shocked audiences that many of them booed and headed for the doors. By 1958 when Bernstein had his chance at it, the world had pretty much begun to take it for granted. So, the question was how to shock the world all over again. Bernstein did it through sheer energy, the power of excitement, producing a performance that continues to thrill us to this day.
Bernstein doesn’t take as much time as many other conductors do in building up the opening atmosphere, which Stravinsky called “a profound mystic sensation which comes to all things at the hour when nature seeks to renew its various forms of life.” Instead, Bernstein seems eager to get on with it, to get to the core of the work, shaping and releasing the tensions and ever increasing the rhythmic pulse like no one before or since. In other words, he begins turning up the heat from the very beginning and never lets it drop.
The conductor further described the music as “a kind of prehistoric jazz,” and because Bernstein was a master of the jazz idiom (just listen to his Rhapsody in Blue), he must have found The Rite ideally suited to his temperament. Under Bernstein, you really do get savage, primitive outbursts of sound and fury, with emphases on huge dynamic contrasts and a surprisingly flexible rubato.
In the opening movements of Part Two, Bernstein does take his time to establish the atmospherics of the piece, yet even here we can sense the pent-up energy impatiently waiting to burst forth. When it does, all hell breaks loose. Those highly palpable timpani attacks are downright electrifying, the conductor particularly consumed by the forward momentum of the piece. Adding icing to the cake, the Philharmonic play their hearts out for their new conductor, the precision of their playing remarkable.
Yes, I still like the recorded Rite performances of Georg Solti (Decca or Decca/JVC), Riccardo Muti (EMI), Pierre Boulez (Sony), Stravinsky himself (Sony), and others, but for a sheer adrenaline rush, this newly remastered Bernstein recording must go to the head of the list.
Columbia Records recorded the music in a single session at the Hotel St. George, Brooklyn, New York, in 1958. Now, in celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the work’s premiere, the engineers at Sony have gone back to the original analogue master tapes of the Bernstein performance and remastered it for the present disc. What they got for their trouble, foremost, is a wonderful sense of presence. The sessions took place in the hotel’s massive Colorama Ballroom, an enormous room, which sounds every bit as large as it is in this spacious recording, even though the miking is fairly close. The sound is clean and clear, with plenty of orchestral depth and width. The midrange is as transparent as you would want, the highs are sparkling and extended, and only the deepest bass seems a tad wanting at times. A strong, taut impact and a sharp transient attack also help to make the music come alive. Still, it’s that sense of space, of ambience, that carries the day. It’s a terrific-sounding recording, with a raw sonic vitality that perfectly suits the music.
To top off a good thing, Sony’s production values are generally excellent, including their use of the original LP album cover art by Gray Foy and informative booklet notes and pictures. About my only concerns are the fact that Sony included only The Rite of Spring on the disc, about thirty-four minutes long under Bernstein’s astonishing direction; and that they packaged the disc in a three-section cardboard foldout, with the disc fitting into one end sleeve and the booklet into the other. In order to get the disc out or put it back in requires you slide it along the cardboard, not something I like to do with a quality CD; and trying to get the booklet out is a chore, too. In both cases I found the easiest method of extraction was to turn the package upside down and let the disc and then the booklet simply drop out. Nevertheless, these are minor distractions in an otherwise superlative product, which the folks at Sony are offering at a remarkably reasonable price.
To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here: