Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps (CD review)

Also, Debussy: La Mer. Jaap van Zweden, New York Philharmonic. Decca Gold B0029690-02.

In 2018 Dutch conductor and violinist Jaap van Zweden (b. 1960) became the twenty-sixth Music Director of the prestigious New York Philharmonic, founded in 1842, one of America's oldest orchestras. Maestro van Zweden also leads the Hong Kong Philharmonic and guest conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, and a host of others. He's a busy man, and this 2018 Sony release marks his second for Decca with the New York Phil.

In van Zweden's first recording for Decca with the NYPO he conducted Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. Here he is doing Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps ("The Rite of Spring") and Debussy's La Mer ("The Sea"). He obviously wanted to start things off on the right foot by choosing to do some of the basic repertoire's most-popular, almost-can't-miss items. Still, with so much competition in this material, he's sure to run into some detractors.

Anyway, as you know, Russian composer, pianist, and conductor Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) caused quite a stir when he premiered his ballet The Rite of Spring in 1913. The ballet (and, to be fair, the choreography) so shocked Paris audiences that many of them booed and headed for the doors. By now, the world has pretty much begun to take the avant-garde nature of Stravinsky's music for granted, but it was groundbreaking in its day.

The work's subtitle, "Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts," pretty much says it all. The story involves various primitive rituals celebrating the approach of spring, after which a young girl is chosen as a sacrificial victim and dances herself to death. Grim and heady stuff, and certainly not the kind of music for the weak of heart, either on the part of the audience or the conductor. My own favorite recording of the piece remains Leonard Bernstein's, leading this very same orchestra in 1958. So van Zweden has some heavy lifting to keep up with the old master.

Jaap van Zweden
However, it's not that van Zweden doesn't try. This is music that a conductor must take with a certain abandon, and van Zweden does that on occasion. Those occasions are few and far between, however, no matter how raucous the conductor makes them appear. For the most part van Zweden seems content merely to keep order. He takes a rather leisurely approach throughout most of the score, building a degree of appropriate atmosphere, to be, sure, and then letting loose in a few wildly loud sections. Although one can still feel the tensions and excitement in the music, as a whole it all seems a bit forced, even awkwardly so at times as transitions seem too abrupt and climaxes too hurried.

The second selection on the disc is La Mer by French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918). In what he called "Three symphonic sketches for orchestra," Debussy drew inspiration, he said, from art, "preferring the seascapes available in painting and literature" to an actual ocean. Whatever, he managed to convey some vivid impressions of the sea. The three movements are "From dawn to noon (or midday) on the sea," taken very slowly and animated little by little; "Play of the Waves," an animated allegro; and, perhaps most famously, "Dialogue of the wind and the sea" (or "Dialogue between wind and waves"), animated and tumultuous, easing up very slightly at the end.

Personally, I liked van Zweden's handling of the Debussy piece a little more than I liked his work in the Stravinsky. Again, van Zweden is slower in all three movements than any of the conductors on my comparison discs (Stokowski, Karajan, Previn, Simon, Haitink, and Giulini), yet van Zweden's steady pace makes for a different kind of vividness that can at times be appealing. It's a calmer sea in a lot of ways than the one imagined by other conductors, yet it's one that remains filled with unexpected, if not always beautiful, magic.

If anything, though, van Zweden's handling of Debussy is too static and commonplace to be of much competition for the aforementioned conductors and recordings. I'd say this van Zweden effort is more of a memento of the conductor's early days with the New York orchestra, a kind of postcard for the ensemble's many admirers.

Producers Lawrence Rock and Mark Travis and engineer Lawrence Rock recorded the music at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York City, in September and October 2018. Nowhere on the packaging or in the booklet notes does Decca explicitly tell us this is a live recording, but they do say "The concerts on October 4-6, 2018, were made possible by generous support from The Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation," implying that they may have recorded at least the Debussy live in concert. Maybe they assume that so many classical orchestral recordings are made live these days, they don't even have to mention it. Whatever, I'm going to assume they recorded both works live.

Nevertheless, the business of "Is it live or isn't it?" may be a moot point as the sound is not quite vintage Decca to begin with. It's fairly bright and sharp-edged, slightly too close for comfort, and a bit glaring at times. In fact, I found a few of the bigger, louder sections rather uneasy on the ears. It's not entirely bad sound, mind you, and the percussion is impressive; but it's not as persuasive as the sound provided for Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic well over sixty years earlier. Go figure.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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