RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) Le Sacre du Printemps (1911-13) [34:00]
Silvestre REVUELTAS (1899-1940) La noche de los mayas (1939) [29:56]
Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel
rec. ‘live’, Sala Simón Bolívar, Centro de Acción Social por la Música, Caracas, Venezuela, February 2010
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 8775 [64:07]
I was mightily impressed when this young orchestra and conductor appeared at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts in 2007, playing Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony and music from the Americas (review). However, I’m one of those people who is instinctively suspicious of ‘hype’ – or what might be ‘hype’ – and some of the adulatory press coverage these musicians have since received has made me thoughtful. So I was more than a little intrigued by the prospect of this CD.
As it so happened, just a few days before receiving it I’d written a review of a 1929 recording of Le Sacre by Pierre Monteux – one of the very first recordings made of the piece – and in the course of it I commented that Monteux’s professional musicians audibly struggled with what was then very new music whereas nowadays it’s not at all unusual to hear youth orchestras performing the piece “with panache and even insouciance”. That comment remains true, I think, except that now I must qualify it by adding that very few youth orchestras could play Le Sacre like this!
This is, by any standards, a remarkable performance of Stravinsky’s ground breaking masterpiece. In the course of this review I’m probably going to comment on a number of spectacular moments in the performance so let me say at the outset that one of the most noteworthy features of it is the way in which the quiet, subtle passages are delivered. So, for example, the playing in the Introduction to Part Two (track 9) is as delicate and demonstrates as much finesse as one would expect in a performance of, say, Debussy or Ravel – the muted trumpets are really rather special. The finesse is equally evident in the following section, ‘Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes’ (track 10) and earlier, in Part One, ‘Adoration de la terre – Le Sage’ (track 7) is amazingly hushed and mysterious.
But above all it’s the sheer physicality of this performance that grips the listener. In the booklet Dudamel says of his players “this orchestra simply has rhythm in its blood”, and he’s right. Throughout the work the playing has pin-point accuracy and the rhythms are always razor-sharp. In this connection, note, for example, the incisive horns and timpani in ‘Jeu de rapt’ (track 3). The power of the playing is quite exceptional. True, there are one or two instances where I thought the response was just a shade too zealous – the bass drum is on the dominant side in the hammered crotchets that begin ‘Glorification de l’élue’ (track 11) – but, overall the control that Dudamel exerts is very impressive.
He clearly has the score at his fingertips. I thought that his tempo for ‘Rondes printanières’ (track 4) was a shade too deliberate – though by no means slack – but on the other hand, the great fff eruptions later in that same section, founded on thunderous low drums and tam-tam, sound implacable at this speed and, in the true sense of the word, awesome. When required Dudamel gets a whiplash attack from his players – ‘Danse de la terre’ (track 8) is frenetic – and several times he unleashes brazen power, as, for example, in ‘Cortège du sage’ (track 6), where the baleful brass and menacing percussion are terrifyingly imposing.
Above all, this performance has tension right from the opening bassoon solo through to the barbaric power displayed in ‘Danse sacrale’ at the end It’s a truly thrilling performance and the one thing that surprised me was that there was no applause at the end – the Revueltas piece is applauded. It’s the sort of performance of Le Sacre that would bring the house down in the concert hall, and justifiably so. The catalogue boasts many fine recordings of Le Sacre but this one can certainly take its place alongside the very best.
The coupling is novel, intriguing and highly appropriate. The music of the Mexican composer, Silvestre Revueltas, will probably be unfamiliar to many people, as it was to me. Gustavo Dudamel says that La noche de los mayas (‘Night of the Maya’) “fits perfectly with Stravinsky’s ballet music because it also revolves around rituals, dances and sacrificial acts”. I can only say that the coupling is inspired. The score was originally composed for a 1939 film. It’s unclear if the score as recorded here is a four-movement suite drawn from the film music but according to the booklet the piece was first performed in 1960, some twenty years after the composer’s death. Paul Griffiths, writing elsewhere, has labelled it a “neo-primitive blockbuster”. That’s a very apt description but I’d take issue with it very slightly as it may mislead the reader by overlooking the several gentle sections in the work. And as was the case with Le Sacre, Dudamel and his players are just as impressive in the quieter passages as they are in the high-octane stretches of music.
The first movement, which carries the same title as the whole work, begins with monumental music of dark, frightening power. Percussion and brass are very much to the fore here. But within a couple of minutes this has given way to a more calm passage in which strings and woodwind predominate. And in fact it’s this quieter material, which sometimes takes on a mysterious, nocturnal character, that occupies most of the movement until at 6:15 the potent opening music returns for the last minute and a half or so of the duration of the piece.
The second movement, entitled ‘Noche de jaranas’ (‘Night of revelry’) is vivacious and light on its feet. In fact, it’s Fiesta time. The music never slows – indeed, if anything it gathers pace – and it displays irresistible energy and brio. The rhythms are irregular and catchy and are spring superbly by these young players. After all this merriment the third movement, ‘Noche de Yucatán’ (‘Yucatán Night’) offers not just repose but also great beauty. This is a gorgeous nocturne, played out, one could readily imagine, below an ink-blue, cloudless ad starlit sky. The playing is absolutely beautiful – in particular there’s some super-fine soft string playing around 6:00.
Then, without a break, we’re plunged into ‘Noche de encantamiento’ (‘Night of Enchantment’). This, the longest of the movements, lasting nearly ten minutes, is simply stunning. The percussion section, clearly crammed full of all manner of exotic instruments, strikes up at 1:03 and, to the best of my recollection, are an ever-present force for the rest of the piece. At one point (2:02-3:41) they take centre stage, while the rest of the orchestra falls silent, to deliver an extended improvisatory passage, which is thrilling. The rhythms and the use of percussion – and, indeed, of other orchestral colouring – in this finale is quite intoxicating and I would guess that the Venezuelans are having huge fun – but very disciplined and focused fun. As the movement progresses so does the tension and the excitement mount and the final section (from 8:27), which is marked con violencia is delivered with swaggering power. At the end the audience erupts and I’m not surprised.
These are both live recordings, although the audience is commendably silent until the end of the Revueltas. Obviously, I don’t know how much editing has been done but both performances have the feel of single ‘takes’. Though the orchestra’s playing is impressive enough anyway, it helps that DG has recorded them in superb sound. The recording has great impact but, additionally, the quiet passages register really impressively and a huge amount of inner detail is readily audible without any artificial enhancement – mind you, that’s a tribute to Dudamel’s skill also.
How marvellous it is to hear accurate, uninhibited performances of hugely demanding music by young musicians, whose enthusiasm is as palpable as their technical accomplishment. Truly, the musical education programme, “El Sistema”, at the pinnacle of which sits the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, is a remarkable thing if it can produce musicians of this calibre.
Among the many fine CDs that are released each year only a handful really have the ‘Wow!” factor. This is one such disc.
A disc with that rare “Wow!” factor