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|
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: