Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (CD review)

Also, Nielsen: Symphony No. 5. Paavo Jarvi, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Telarc CD-80615.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I can’t help thinking when I see the name Paavo Jarvi of his father, Neemi Jarvi, as well as his fellow maestro, Paavo Berglund. Once I’ve sorted all of this out, I remember the younger Jarvi was the principal conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony when he made this 2004 release. Anyway, Jarvi followed up his Telarc disc of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and The Firebird Suite with the composer’s Rite of Spring. That isn’t the news, though. It’s the new disc’s coupling, the Nielsen Fifth Symphony, that makes the papers.

The pairing works in several ways. First, it must be a difficult decision for a conductor and a record company to choose whether to produce a disc of familiar music with an enormous amount of marketplace competition or a disc of relatively unfamiliar music with the risk of nobody buying it. By providing both a seasoned warhorse like the Rite and a well-liked but lesser-known symphony like Nielsen’s Fifth, Jarvi can have it both ways. Second, the two pieces of music have a lot in common, their composers writing each of them in the early part of the twentieth century (1913 and 1922 respectively) and each piece being unusual, somewhat radical, in its own way. They make good companions on CD.

The Rite of Spring, of course, became the most controversial work of its time, causing a riot during its première. But today it all seems pretty tame, revolutionary or not, and even school children know it well through Disney’s Fantasia. Jarvi takes the first part at a most leisurely stride, preferring to build atmosphere at the expense of utmost excitement. He does, however, finally build up a head of steam by the closing moments, though nothing that might induce one to think that a young woman was literally dancing herself to death (you can hear a few brief excerpts from the work’s closing sections below). Nor does Telarc’s sound help unless it’s turned up quite high. Perhaps because Telarc realized there is a wide dynamic range involved and some deep bass drum thumps, they chose to keep the average playback level low. The opening notes are so quiet, you’ll hardly know the piece has begun unless you set the gain up a bit more than usual, and if you do, you’ll later regret it.

But the Nielsen Fifth is quite another story. Here, the conflicting forces of nature or whatever that Nielsen portrays are always at perfect odds with one another, the ominous, gutsy, staccato gestures of the snare drum in the first movement finally, hopelessly, giving way to the repose of the Adagio. Jarvi brings out these contrasts fairly well, with tempos that ensure that a listener is probably not going to nod off.

Jarvi’s Fifth is still perhaps not so convincing as Blomstedt’s (Decca or, older, EMI), Bernstein’s (Sony), Horenstein’s (Unicorn), or Jarvi’s own father’s (the older account on EMI, vinyl only, I believe), but at least this Fifth has more energy than the Telarc disc’s accompanying Rite. Moreover, Telarc’s sound, again lower in level than normal, is smooth and natural in the extreme, with a realistic sense of breadth and depth to the sonic stage. The Nielsen is a fine production all the way around and alone, it’s worth the price of the disc.

To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click here:


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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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa