Stravinsky: Le Sacre Du Printemps
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Quoted by Bernstein himself that the century-old Le Sacre du Printemps is "one your everyday volcanic masterpieces...of such originality and power that it still overwhelms us." Of course, this 1958 recording with Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic is a tour de force performance of the piece that was so "volcanic" at its Paris premiere that it started a legendary riot. This wonderful new audio transfer is accompanied by photos of Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky from the recording sessions and more.
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Stokowski's 1929-1930 recording is typical of what one would expect from the conductor during this period. He alters some of the brass writing so that Stravinsky's repeated notes are turned into tremolos. There is quite a bit of rhythmic flexibility - some of Stokowski's extreme tempo changes are similar to what he did for the Fantasia soundtrack - although at least he conducts the piece in sequence. This version is very well recorded for the time.
Stravinsky recorded Le Sacre three times - the two later recordings, from 1940 and 1960, are included here. The composer's approach is the antithesis of Stokowski's voluptuousness. Tempos are straight, and textural transparency is favored over tone painting. Neither version is perfect technically - in the earlier recording, the orchestra has some difficulty playing together during the Sacrificial Dance; in the later recording, the woodwinds suffer from a whiny, nasal tone. Both recordings are rather drily recorded, with audible tape splices in the stereo version.
Pierre Monteux led the premiere of Le Sacre in 1913. This 1951 recording, with the Boston Symphony, has long been considered a classic - but I beg to differ. It may have been great in its day, but that day has passed. It was Monteux who persuaded Stravinsky to reduce the tempo marking on the final dance to make the piece easier to play, and there is a sense of caution in some of the more extroverted material. Further there is some seriously out of tune playing by the brass - particularly in the higher notes (this was a recurring problem with the BSO at the time).
Many consider Eugene Ormandy to be something of a "hack" outside the Romantic repertoire, but his Sacre is peppered with brisk tempos (perhaps too brisk - this is about the fastest Sacre I've ever heard), bracing rhythms - and the Philadelphians' playing is spectacular. Under Ormandy's hands, one never forgets that Sacre started as a ballet score. This is the most persuasive of the four mono recordings in this set.
Ozawa's interpretation with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is middle-ground - if there can be such a thing with Le Sacre. Metrically, this version is very "straight", balances are clear and - as is common with many Chicago recordings since the Reiner era - the brass and winds are quite prominent, which allows the listener to clearly hear parts that are sometimes obscured by the strings. I've never heard the percussion parts struck with such clarity. The overriding feeling is one of "control", which has its merits but prevents this recording from achieving the ultimate in excitement. This disc also includes Stravinsky's Fireworks.
Of the recordings in this set, the 1969 recording with the Cleveland Orchestra under Boulez is my favorite - striking an excellent balance between savagery, structure and textural clarity. The pacing is well-nigh perfect. But I'm a Clevelander and grew up with this recording so I may be a bit partial. I find the Boulez/Cleveland recording from the 1990s (not included here) overly smooth and far less persuasive.
Bernstein recorded Sacre at least three times - the first recording eliciting an excited "WOW!" from the composer. This is the second recording, from 1972. The interpretation is a good deal more straightforward than the earlier set, with less inflection at climactic moments, and greater variety of lower-level dynamics - but there is a notable falloff in energy in the Evocation of the Ancestors before things pick up during the Sacrificial Dance. The big snag here is the unnatural sound, which remastering has only partially addressed. Primarily, this can be attributed to multi or "spot" miking, with sections fading in and out as if the recording engineer was constantly riding gain - it's especially noticeable when wearing headphones.
Salonen begins The Adoration of the Earth rather languidly, moving to an unusually brisk Augurs of Spring - from whence there's no letting up. Throughout this performance of Sacre the "faster" dances here are played very quickly. As a whole, the performance is not on a large scale, dynamically - this is the most chamber music-like Sacre I've ever heard. The Philharmonia's playing is dazzlingly precise. (The Symphony in Three Movements is similarly taut and propulsive.)
Michael Tilson Thomas' recording with the San Francisco Symphony bestrides an interpretive middle ground - tempos are at the norm and there is little inflection, except for the climaxes of Spring Rounds - where ritardandi have become somewhat common. The recorded sound is spectacular which will make this a go-to recording for many. The couplings that originally appeared when the disc was issued in 1999, Fireworks and Persephone, have been deleted - an unexplained and disappointing decision.
There are many fine Sacres that are not part of this set. A particular favorite of mine is Benjamin Zander's recording with the Boston Philharmonic, which is coupled with a piano roll that was supervised by Stravinsky himself.
If you have a magnifying glass (or really good vision) you can decipher the liner notes from the recordings. Stravinsky's essay that accompanied his own 1960 recording is included in the booklet.
I began my listening with the mono Ormandy version, which was the version of "Le sacre" that graced the record collection of my local public library back in my student days. I owned Markevitch's stereo version at the time, and compared to that, I remember finding Ormandy to be dull and too fast. So I'm happy to report that my youthful assessment was quite off the mark - this is a very good recording in excellent sound. The orchestral playing is fulsome and alive. Truth be told, were I forced to have only one recording of this piece available, I'd be quite happy with Ormandy. I'm disappointed that Sony has not seen fit to include the Petroushka Suite that is promoted on the CD slip cover, which reproduces the original LP cover. But it gets worse, as Sony has at the same time reissued this same Rite on another CD with the same cover art, coupled with not only the Petroushka that is missing from the CD in this set but with the Firebird Suite as well! Why they couldn't take the easy way out and use that three-fer CD in this set is beyond reason.
I next moved to the Ozawa version, which I don't recall hearing before. It's excellent as well, featuring great playing from the CSO. Strangely, this CD includes "Fireworks" that was a filler on the original LP. I can't figure out Sony's logic here - delete Petroushka off the Ormandy Rite, but leave the Fireworks on the Ozawa version. I chalk it up to idiocy.
Third in line was the Boulez/Cleveland version, which well deserves it's high place in the pantheon of Rite recordings. The sound on this CD is tremendous, and the interpretation is - gulp! - one of the most-Romantic versions you could ever hope to hear. Boulez doesn't go in for special effects. He simply voices and balances all of the orchestral choirs to optimum effect, allowing the piece to rather "play itself" in a most-satisfying and exciting way. Impressive - and the clear winner in this set of 10 recordings of "Le sacre." It's also a much more exciting version than the DG digital remake from these same forces and conductor.
Bernstein's stereo remake from London came next in the playlist. Comparing this to the recently re-released CD version of his 1957 NYPO version, well, I found myself preferring the London recording. This is a much more nuanced and considered version than the NYPO recording, which is one-dimensional (ie: loud) to a fault. The recorded sound is also quite good. Well worth hearing.
Speaking of recorded sound, Tilson-Thomas's live SFSO recording has some of the best recorded sound ever. Interpretively, I found this less interesting than the other recordings in the set, and I was disappointed that once again, Sony hasn't seen fit to include the pieces that were coupled on the original CD issue, even though those pieces are listed on the album cover.
My next stop was the Salonen/Philharmonia version, a digital Sony recording that I hadn't heard before. This is a well-played version if a bit lacking in interpretive viewpoint from the podium. It's fast, much faster than Ormandy, especially in the "Augers of Spring" section. It's what one might imagine Boulez would do with the piece if his reputation for being analytical hadn't been proved a lie by his very Romantic Cleveland version mentioned above. This is a very clean recording, very clear and not at all savage. It's played like absolute music, if that makes any sense. Strangely, Salonen has the duet for the muted C trumpets (starting 1 bar before rehearsal 85 in the Boosey score) played by French horns. Salonen is one of the few conductors to take the composer at his word by keeping the opening pages of Part 2 quiet, which makes the explosion of sound at the "Glorification of the chosen one" all the more animalistic and surprising. The coupling of the Symphony in 3 Movements is substantial, and makes one again wonder what led Sony to leave couplings on some discs in this set while removing them from others. The performance of SITM is excellent, though the piece leaves me cold.
Working back to the earlier mono recordings, I was impressed again with Monteux's Boston Symphony recording (which I already own in RCA's circa 1994 Monteux box set). The sound is really spectacular for 1950's mono. Monteux plays up some of the more-subtle dissonances in the score by emphasizing secondary voices that are playing intervals of close seconds against primary voices. It's very effective, so effective that I wonder why other conductors don't seem to balance orchestral voices the same way. A reminder that one can always find something "new" in even the most-shopworn warhorses. The recording is a bit bass-shy, but the overall sound is clear and forward. There's a bit of upper end distortion in the final 15 pages or so of the score. Nothing horrible or ruinous, though. Sorry, but I didn't do an A-B comparison of this particular CD against the earlier issue.
Stoki's 1930 Philadelphia recording is the earliest recording in this box, and the sound is just this side of listenable. The top and bottom of the recording are extremely cramped, and percussion instruments are held back - no doubt to avoid overloading the recording equipment - which has the upside of allowing us to hear pitches in the lower end of the orchestra that are often obliterated by drums & timpani. There's a lot of mid-range presence, as can often happen with recordings of this vintage. While I'm happy to have this recording in the box and in my collection, I doubt I'll return to it any time soon, if ever. There's just more to the aural side of "Le sacre" than could be captured via recording at the time this version was set down.
I finished my "Le sacre" journey with the composer's own 1. near-disastrous and 2. mediocre recordings. The mono recording with the NYPO is an absolute mess, no more so than in the final Sacrificial Dance, which is laden with early and late entries by the orchestra, who are obviously laboring under the hapless direction emanating from the amateur on the podium. The later stereo recording (also with the NYPO relabeled as the "Columbia Symphony') is an entirely lackluster affair - perhaps the tamest "Le sacre" on the market. The orchestra is out of tune with itself for the duration of the recording, a recording with no punch or edge at all. The final Sacrificial Dance is better here than in the NYPO mono version, but it's clear that many of the off-the-beat interjections from the French horns were recorded in a different acoustic than the rest of the recording, a telltale sign that they were spliced in from touch-up sessions. I owned this stereo Rite on LP back in my high school days, and have it in the "Original Jackets" CD set as well. I've never liked this recording, and over 40 years of listening haven't changed my opinion one bit.
In both recordings, Stravinsky ignores matters of tempo, dynamics and articulation that appear in his own hand in the score (and ignores different markings between the two recordings). I guess that's his prerogative as the composer. But from my perspective, the composer who set down all of those diacritical musical markings knew what he was doing, a fact that is evidenced in every other recording of "Le sacre" in this set, ie: recordings where accomplished conductors follow what Stravinsky bothered to write down. Amazing how well the score comes off if one follows Stravinsky's markings AND if one has the conductorial chops to keep the orchestra together and balanced.
With hindsight, we can now view Stravinsky's disparaging remarks about Karajan's 1965 recording on DG to be little else but a pique of professional jealousy on the part of a composer whose conductorial skills were average, at best. Where Karajan may have made a few interpretive gestures that weren't to Stravinsky's liking, he at least had the skill to get what he wanted from an orchestra, a skill Stravinsky himself didn't possess...unless we're to believe that the mediocre fare presented on these two Columbia recordings is representative of the composer's thoughts on how to perform his own works. In truth, these two composer-led recordings are examples of the Emperor's New Clothes syndrome, and are prime examples of what NOT to do when recording "Le sacre." Isn't it time we stop apologizing for the shortcomings of these recordings, admit that the composer's sub-standard renditions offer no insights into the way "Le sacre" should be performed, and move on to better, more-engaging and -accomplished fare?
Still, I can recommend this set overall: 4 out of 5, with one point held back for Sony's stupid and non-consistent policy when it comes to eliminating certain couplings from some of the CDs in this set.