Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (CD review)

Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic. Sony 88765469152 (remastered).

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.

Wow, indeed.

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:



Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa