Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (CD review)

Also, Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy. Valery Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra. Philips 289 468 035-2.

Could any two works be more similar and yet so very disparate as Alexander Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy and Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring? Russian composers wrote both of them at the beginning of the twentieth century (the Poem in 1907, the Rite in 1913), and the composers were within a decade of one another in age when they wrote them. Yet the Poem of Ecstasy is clearly the concluding chapter of a bygone era, while the Rite of Spring is a preface to a whole new age of modernism. Hearing them side by side as here, the differences can sometimes sound startling.

Oddly, except to sell the disc, the program opens with the newer, longer work, the Rite. Stravinsky intended it to represent, of course, the coming of spring and the renewal of the Earth through the pagan ritual of sacrifice, in this instance a young woman who literally dances herself to death. Under Gergiev's direction, it is appropriately savage and intense, although not as much so as under some of my favorite conductors of the work: Leonard Bernstein (Sony), Sir Georg Solti (Decca or JVC), Riccardo Muti (EMI), Pierre Boulez (Sony), or the composer himself (Sony). Gergiev insists upon providing more sensuality in the piece than outright kinetic ferocity, while making a strong case for the composition's severity through his flexible use of dramatic contrasts.

Valery Gergiev
Following that, the Poem of Ecstasy appears positively Romantic, which it no doubt is. Unlike the lean, hard, compact fabric of the Rite, the Poem sounds thicker, the textures more richly upholstered, with long, languorous phrases evoking the kind of literary eroticism its composer had in mind. Frankly, I preferred Geriev's voluptuous approach to the Poem more than I liked his rendering of the Rite.

The Philips sound, originally released on disc in 2001, is not quite as we have come to expect from this source. Things are slightly thick and dark, but fairly natural, too, and highly dynamic. The stereo spread is not so wide as to suggest any compartmentalization of instruments but conveys a realistic homogeneity of sound, with even some depth to the orchestra. Don't expect a wealth of inner detail, however, or as much transparency as on some competing releases; expect, instead, a reasonably true-to-life flow of sound as might be heard from a midway seat in a concert hall. It's a comfortable yet highly robust sound, well matching the technique of the music making.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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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