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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Rite of Spring (1911-13, revised 1947) [34:14]
Apollon Musagète (1927-28, revised 1947) [29:36]
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden
rec. 21-25 August 2006, Studio of Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, MCO, Hilversum
EXTON OVCL 00330 [63:50]
Experience Classicsonline


The Rite of Spring was a succès de scandale in 1913, yet even today some listeners find this wild-eyed score too much to bear. Others, more blasé perhaps, may think it’s less of a challenge, especially when it gets so many routine readings. There are around 140 recordings of The Rite in the catalogue, some of which are high points in the history of this work. Stravinsky’s own performance with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (CBS Masterworks 42433) and Bernstein’s white-hot reading with the New York Philharmonic – available as part of Sony’s Original Jacket Collection, catalogue no.89750 – are among this elite group. More recent outings include Yoel Levi’s spectacular Atlanta disc (Telarc CD 80266) and the much-praised Gergiev/Kirov recording on Philips 468 035, the latter used for comparison here.

There are many other fine interpreters, Abbado and Haitink included, so Jaap van Zweden and his Dutch band are in a hotly contested field. I had misgivings about this disc, primarily because an earlier Exton release – the Edo de Waart Zarathustra (see review) – was so disappointing. As hybrid SACDs go that is one of the most bizarre recordings I’ve heard in a long time.

Not the most auspicious beginning, but I’m pleased to report van Zweden’s Adoration of the Earth starts with a most atmospheric bassoon solo – not as recessed as that on the Gergiev disc – which blossoms nicely as the introduction progresses. The orchestral detail on both discs is impressive but the Exton has an astonishing ‘hear through’ quality that augurs well for this Rite. Gergiev is swifter here – 3:23 to van Zweden’s 3:34 – and he hints at the more febrile music to come. That said, van Zweden is very persuasive, the Dutch band sounding rich and weighty.

The tramping figure with its strong off-beat accents that opens The Harbingers of Spring: Dance of the Young Maidens, not to mention the percussive collapse at 1:15 and the mighty drum thwacks at 3:02, are superbly caught by the Exton engineers. Perspectives may seem a bit flat and very occasionally van Zweden’s performance sounds a little tame next to Gergiev’s menacing rhythms and more abandoned bass. The raucous sound Gergiev encourages also seems more apt here.

The same is true of the Russian’s Ritual of the Abduction, which arcs and sputters with enormous energy. By comparison van Zweden is more elegant and precise – suave, even – but in the Spring Rounds he summons up some stupendous sounds, notably in that series of percussive outbursts. A small caveat: van Zweden tends to relax a little too much in the quieter moments, while Gergiev is inclined to press on regardless. Still, no one can deny the latter’s punch and power, especially in the near hysteria of Ritual of the Rival Tribes and the Procession of the Sage. Again, van Zweden is more refined, deep and spacious; indeed, I can imagine this disc being used as a demonstration disc in hi-fi showrooms, particularly for its hefty bass.

We come to the end of Part I with the mysterious, muted chords of The Adoration of the Earth and the dervish-like Dance of the Earth. In the latter van Zweden may not match Gergiev for sheer abandon but he scores well in terms of orchestral poise and discipline. Whether that’s what’s needed here is a moot point, and I imagine many will find the abrasive nature of Gergiev’s reading more convincing. And that really sums up these two approaches; van Zweden may be more considered but he’s alive to instrumental detail, whereas Gergiev tends to focus on rhythm and overall excitement.

Part II begins with a brooding evocation of pagan night, well executed in both accounts. I found myself warming to van Zweden at this point, as he distils so much of the inner magic of this score, even if he sometimes misses its broader brutishness. This is particularly true of Mystic Circles of the Young Maidens, even if this attention to detail means the musical pulse becomes a little weak. Nothing at all hesitant or indistinct about those huge beats that take us into the Glorification of the Chosen One, where the Exton team conjure up a deep, vivid sound picture. The ever-changing metres are well handled by van Zweden and his band, although he must yield to Gergiev in terms of atavistic appeal.

Honours are more evenly divided in Evocation of the Ancestors and Rituals of the Ancestors, although Gergiev’s drums are noticeably earthier. Again this is a point where van Zweden’s more manicured approach doesn’t work so well, although he does compensate by highlighting details that Gergiev misses with his broad-brush approach. But it’s the rhythmically complex Ritual Dance of the Chosen One that springs a surprise or two; van Zweden is measured and coherent but still exciting, whereas Gergiev is just plain ponderous. What on earth persuaded him to slow things down? Not so much tempo di hoochie-coochie as tempo di rumty-tumty. The Russian’s ending strikes me as ill-judged, too.

I suppose one could characterise these two recordings as Dionysiac (Gergiev) and Apollonian (van Zweden), so it’s appropriate the latter’s filler is Stravinsky’s neo-classical ballet Apollon Musagète. Be warned, though, the break between the two works is much too short, so you’ll need to be quick with your remote.

A commission by that doyenne of the arts, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, this work centres on Apollo, who is visited by Terpsichore (the muse of dance), Calliope (the muse of poetry) and Polyhymnia (the muse of song). It’s scored for 34 strings and cast in two tableaux, the first dealing with the birth of Apollo, the second offering a series of variations and dances for these four characters.

I find neo-classical Stravinsky rather dry but in Apollon Musagète the composer strikes a perfect balance between form and content. The music is remarkably lithe and carefully proportioned, the Dutch strings playing with a good combination of weight and precision (take the start of the Coda, for instance). The recorded balance is rather close but not unpleasantly so, and van Zweden directs a generally refined and nicely nuanced performance. He points rhythms rather well – the Coda again – and gives the music plenty of momentum where necessary. But it’s the Apotheosis that has some of the loveliest, most eloquent, passages. The upper strings are rich and creamy, the lower ones clear and nimble, the mood one of general inwardness and grace. A very rewarding performance of what must be one of Stravinsky’s most winning scores.

I was cautious at first but repeated hearings have persuaded me this is a very fine Rite indeed. If you want spectacle Levi’s your man, and if you want adrenaline go for Gergiev, even if he does come unstuck in the final dance. Couplings may be an issue as well; Gergiev offers a passable performance of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy – Muti’s EMI account is far more sensuous – while van Zweden’s filler is a delight from start to finish.

One of my discs of the year.

Dan Morgan

 


 


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