Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Pétrouchka (original 1911 version) [34:33]
Le Sacre du Printemps (1913 rev.1947) [33:32]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. August 2008 (Sacre) and June 2009 (Pétrouchka), Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
BIS-SACD-1474 [image] [69:00]

It’s true, we’ll probably never have quite enough recordings of Stravinsky’s best works, but there comes a stage where a new entry to the market has to be really special to make an impact. Before we even start on the qualities in performance on this release, the recording really is in a class of its own. Especially in SACD mode the bass drums in the second part of Le Sacre du Printemps will see your socks ricochet off a far wall and land on the cat, such is the force with which they are blown from your feet. Sonic fireworks are by no means what this recording is all about, but rest assured that this is a demonstration quality disc and one which will impress all who hear it, cats excepted.

Stravinsky did some tweaking to the orchestration of Pétrouchka in 1947, reducing the orchestra a little but covering the missing parts with alternative instruments. This was done in part to put the work back into copyright, as Stravinsky was making no financial gain from the original score despite it being one of his more popular pieces. Without this move the original 1911 score would easily have stood as an entirely satisfactory and in some ways preferable version, so there is no controversy here. The emotional narrative of this ‘Burlesque in 4 scenes’ is well known; and such a colourful and descriptive score deserves the kind of attention to detail and sheer verve and vibrancy that it indeed receives in this recording. The sparkle of the high tuned percussion is a strong feature in the first minutes, as are the inner brass voices which cry out through the hammering rhythms of the full orchestra. With a performance and recording as refined as this one all kinds of extra nuances and new associations pop through unexpectedly: the Ravel-like atmosphere of the Lento section which starts at 5:15 into the first movement for instance, beastly double-bassoon included. The Danse Russe is full of superb touches, such as the ‘doowah-doowah’ horns at 8:38. The ‘Tom and Jerry’ character of the beginning of Part Two is great fun, and all parts are full of panache and polish, from suave to snarl at the drop of a drop of milk. The piano playing deserves a nomination, but as a team effort this is hard to beat on all fronts.

Talking of verve and animation, my comparisons for this recording both come from the maestro himself, those of both Pétrouchka and Le Sacre du Printemps. These are to be found on disc 2 of the essential-purchase Works of Igor Stravinsky in a big chunky box from Sony (see review). With Pétrouchka you get all of the character from the 1960 Columbia Symphony Orchestra recording, but far better ensemble and discipline from the Bergen Philharmonic. Both through the accuracy of the playing and detail in the recording there is much new to be discovered under Andrew Litton’s baton. The wonderful cantabile of the trumpet at the beginning of the Valse is rather special, and the nonchalant ease of those little polymetric clashes bode well for La Sacre. The Shrove-Tide Fair is positively luminous, the absolute evenness of those undulating winds blending to create textures of wonder and minimalist beauty. Action and excitement give way to lonely desolation for the downbeat end of Pétrouchka, and the conclusion is very affecting indeed.

Stravinsky’s own pungently dramatic recording of Le Sacre du Printemps has long been a favourite of mine and a tough document to beat in terms of sheer power and character, if not in terms of refinement and intonation. I’d never want to be without that 1960 recording even with its ragged strings, but Andrew Litton brings the best of all worlds in a performance which has all of the fresh-minted sense of discovery, technical perfection and passionate delivery you could ask for. Right from the deliciously plangent bassoon solo at the beginning you’re hooked. Out of the whole thing there was only one thing Litton did differently to what I expected: the second entry of those famous stabbing rhythms in which the final two bars are softer than the rest; just before figure 16 at 3:41 on the recording. The tempo is pretty much identical to that of Stravinsky himself, and certainly not lacking in drive and intensity. Spine chilling effects such as the woooooo rising and falling glissandi of the winds at about 6:15 are effective here as I’ve never heard them before, and as mentioned before that bass drum has the cat diving for cover every time. Bass resonance is important here as never before, with the sheer weight of the sostenuto e pesante march in the Rondes printanières developing into something with a physical presence which makes your hairs stand up and move about independently. If you’re looking for those two incredible pages of absolute polyrhythmic climax they occur at 13:40 sounding here like 9 orchestras at once, in the best possible way.

The massive excitement which concludes Part One gives way to magical atmosphere in Part Two, where those vast virtual gong beats from the whole orchestra make one want to sink through the floor into the primeval turf beneath. The unearthly combination of flageolet solo violin and alto-flute is remarkable here, and everything about each moment brings back the sheer unassailable genius of this music. All hell breaks loose at 7:34 and further for those seeking to give their woofers a workout, but even when the dance is at its height of abandon every inner voice of the orchestra can be followed with absolute clarity. With this work you have to believe: to be so wound up by the emotional journey that the fact of someone dancing themselves to death to it is a mere detail, not some extra narrative which you can take or leave with a scoff of Druidic salt. This performance wrings every ounce of drama from the notes on the page and leaves you exhausted – and that’s just from the comfort of your armchair.

To be honest, I had been a bit worried about writing this review. It’s easier to find words of criticism, and far less comfortable finding descriptions which express superlative appreciation without the whole thing turning into sycophantic-sounding drivel. I have to admit a sentimental attachment to Le Sacre, since having virtually been joined at the hip to an Ansermet/Suisse Romande Decca ffrr record, the one with paint stains on the cover, not so very long after being introduced to solid food. Such a close affinity also makes it harder to convince me of the unshakeable quality of any one recording, but this release has me sold all the way down the line. Yes, there are many very good versions around, and those who already have Chailly, Boulez, Muti, Bernstein, Gergiev et al may wonder at the wisdom of adding another recording to their collection. There’s also some SACD competition from John Nott on the Tudor label. I can’t make up your mind for you, but would say that this recording is more than a bit special. In fact, if you want one crusty old cynic’s honest opinion, I think it’s as damn near definitive as I’m ever likely to hear.

Dominy Clements

Stop press: crusty old cynic declares recording as ‘near definitive’.

res recording as ‘near definitive’.