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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1911-13) [34:21]
Symphony in Three Movements (1942-45) [22:31]
Bamberger Symphoniker/Jonathan Nott
rec. Sinfonie an der Regnitz, Joseph-Keilberth Saal, Bamberg, Germany, 2-3 February 2006 (Le Sacre) and 19-20 January 2005 (Symphony). DDD.
TUDOR 7145 SACD [56:54]

This recording of two major Stravinsky works follows Jonathan Nott’s recent Janáček effort which received a mixed review here from Evan Dickerson. I have not heard that recording, but I must say that Nott shows a real affinity for Stravinsky. I was also very impressed with the disc of Ligeti orchestral works he made with the Berlin Philharmonic a few years ago for Teldec. Of course, he has much more competition with these Stravinsky pieces, especially the Rite of Spring. Thus there would have to be something special about these performances to make them recommendable, and indeed there is.

From the very beginning of the Rite you know you are in for something rather special. I don’t think I have ever heard the opening bassoon solo played more beautifully. It is not that it is just technically perfect. It has a warm, even sensuous quality that shows the influence of Debussy more than I can remember from any other performance. Although Nott in no way shortchanges the violent aspects of the score, it is the quieter, more atmospheric parts that remain most with the listener. His overall timing is on the slow side. In fact, of the recordings I used for comparison, only Gergiev) is slower and only by 30+ seconds. However, Gergiev’s account is one of great extremes that go way over the top for me. John Phillips in his review of that recording found much more to like than I do. Nott’s conception, on the other hand, is all of a piece and is convincing from beginning to end.

The recording, itself, is perfectly good — although I have heard it in only two channels — without being spectacular and the Bamberg Symphony performs very well. But there are some balance peculiarities. Woodwinds and strings are often heard to greater advantage than the brass — except for the lower brass. The trombones and tuba are terrific as is the percussion. The wallops from the bass drum are gut wrenching! However, the horns in particular need to project more. An especially noticeable instance of this comes near the very end of the Sacrificial Dance, at 4:03-4:12, where the horns have the melody and can normally be heard above the strings. Here they are almost completely covered and you are aware only of the accompaniment. I must emphasize, though, that these are minor deficiencies in comparison with the performance as a whole.

Even if I prefer a more exciting or savage interpretation, e.g., Chailly or Muti, I still find plenty to enjoy here. Nott’s performance is different enough to make it worthwhile as a supplement to Boulez, Chailly, Muti, or Stravinsky himself. Stravinsky’s account, while easily superceded in the accuracy of the playing by any of these others, still sets the standard for clarity and is special in its own right. My own personal preference is for Chailly with the Cleveland Orchestra on a Decca Double with several other Stravinsky ballets. It has everything: excitement, lucidity, virtuosity and terrific sound. Nonetheless, when I want to hear something more poetic, I will put on Nott.

The Symphony in Three Movements does not have as much competition. My standard for this work is Stravinsky’s own recording from 1961. This work is not as difficult to perform as The Rite, and the Columbia Symphony do themselves proud for the composer. Nott is no slouch either. As in The Rite, his tempos are slower than Stravinsky’s but his overall timing is only a little more than a minute longer than the composer’s. The difference is in the interpretation. Stravinsky emphasizes the forward thrust of the work, while Nott is weightier — more vertical, if you will. Nott also does particularly well, not surprising from his interpretation of the Rite, in the light and graceful Andante second movement. I did not notice any problems with the sound for the Symphony. It is well balanced throughout.

One further comment concerns the pairing of these two works. I have never considered the Symphony in Three Movements one of Stravinsky’s strongest works. Composed near the end of his neo-classical period and during the Second World War, the piece does not hang together all that well. It seems that Stravinsky has one foot in neo-classicism, while the other in world of The Rite of Spring. The Andante seems to me to be the most convincing part. Stravinsky originally composed it to accompany the apparition of the Virgin in a film version of the Song of Bernadette, whereas the music in the outer movements was influenced by wartime newsreels. In many ways, though, the Symphony seems like a throwback to the Rite and thus makes an apt coupling. It is to Nott and the Bamberg Symphony’s credit that one’s interest is maintained throughout the work.

Leslie Wright


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