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CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1911-1913) [33:25]
L’oiseau de feu (The Firebird) – Suite (1919) [23:28]
Scherzo ā la russe (symphonic version) (1943-1944) [3:50]
Tango No. 72 (orchestral version) (1940) [2:27]
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
rec. December 2010, Palace of Arts, Budapest, Hungary. Stereo, multichannel. A DSD recording

Experience Classicsonline

This has to be one of the most eagerly awaited recordings of recent times. Ever since it was flagged up on the Internet, Iván Fischer’s Rite of Spring has caused quite a stir among audiophiles, anxious to hear engineer Jared Sacks’s high-res take on this aural blockbuster. Previous SACDs from Channel have been very impressive indeed. Even their reissue of Fischer’s old Philips recording of Dvor(ák’s Slavonic Dancesreview – breathed new life into an already desirable collection. Adding to the feverish air is Channel’s active Twitter feed, which has kept this conductor and his Budapest band in the public eye for months, with news of concerts and links to glowing reviews.
Given that expectations are sky high, just how easy is it for Messrs Fischer and Sacks to deliver? First off, the programme is a sensible one, although I would have preferred a complete Firebird, rather than the suite plus Scherzo and Tango; I suspect it would have been possible, perhaps only just. As for the competition, where does one start? For the Rite I’ve listened to a selection of discs, among them Sir Charles Mackerras (EMI), Pierre Boulez (DG), Gustavo Dudamel (DG), Andrew Litton (BIS) and Jaap van Zweden (Exton). The latter – review – is my selected SACD version; as for the suite and Scherzo, I’ve chosen Paavo Järvi’s SACD (Telarc). And I’ll be reviewing this new disc in reverse, starting with the Firebird.
Initial impressions are mixed, with a somewhat murky opening that blunts Stravinsky’s rhythmic edge. Thereafter the woodwind is pin-sharp and balances are beautifully judged. That said, Fischer’s phrasing is just too unyielding for my tastes; even for a suite the music ought to be delivered more seamlessly and with more give and take than it is here. Indeed, Fischer’s Rattle-like attention to detail means the narrative thread is too easily lost, although from the galvanising bass drum thuds at the start of The Infernal Dance (tr. 19) the performance does become more compelling; in particular, Stravinsky's vivid colours are superbly rendered, the Super Audio sound remarkably tactile. And in the Finale Fischer finds a zesty, Russianate tang to the music that’s both apt and exciting.
Now here’s the thing; Paavo Järvi’s reading, which I didn’t care for on first hearing, is a real flesh-and-blood affair, with a strong story line and a top-notch DSD recording to boot. True, it’s not quite as lifelike as the Channel one – the famous Telarc bass drum is just too prominent – but it’s a more rewarding performance in every other respect. Just listen to the way Järvi nudges and accents the rhythms at the start and compare that with Fischer’s metronomic precision. So if you like your Firebird sleek and efficient, Fischer’s the one for you; but if you prefer it with more flexibility and feeling, Järvi’s your man. Honours are more evenly divided in the sparkling Scherzo, although some may find Fischer’s Tango a little po-faced.
I suspect it’s the Rite – premiered almost a century ago – that most listeners will want to hear. It’s a work that’s open to many interpretations, but whatever the finer details it needs to be animated by a pagan energy and thrust, the whole shaped into a gripping narrative that ought to feel as elemental and earth-shaking now as it did then. In that sense, the wide-eyed clarity of Fischer’s opening bars aren’t quite what one might expect, although instrumental timbres are exceptionally well caught. Rhythms are nicely judged too, especially the dragging tread in the Dance of the Young Maidens (tr. 2), but for all that this Rite lacks a degree of mesmerism and mystery.
Listening to several versions in preparation for this review made me realise just how difficult it is to find a truly consistent and involving version of the work, and whatever misgivings I might have about Fischer’s reading it’s much better shaped and played than most. In some ways it’s like Jaap van Zweden’s sophisticated – rather French – reading, which is just as persuasive as a more immediate, atavistic one such as Riccardo Muti’s (EMI). Certainly, those paroxysms and polyrhythms emerge with astonishing clarity and focus here; just sample the formidable attack and articulation of the Dance of the Earth (tr.8), which brings Part I to a thrilling close.
As for Part II, Fischer infuses the Introduction (tr. 9) with some of the atmosphere missing from Part I. As always, the playing is alert and characterful, the many strands of Stravinsky’s score laid bare in a way I’ve not encountered before. The constant change of mood and metre is adroitly done, which certainly helps to maintain impetus and interest. And when the Mystical Circles of the Young Maidens arrives (tr. 10) it’s simply huge; no question, the sonics here are unparalleled in their range and impact, the bass drum a thing of awe and savage splendour.
By contrast there’s plenty of point and detail in the Rituals of the Ancestors (tr.13), whose seismic irruptions are as unnerving as any I’ve heard. But if the percussionists deserve high praise, so do the remarkably agile, chattering woodwind and sneering brass. As for the final Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One) it’s better projected and propelled than most; indeed, Fischer maintains amplitude and excitement to the very end, something that Boulez – for all his strengths – signally fails to do. At this point Fischer’s accented drum beats are just superb.
Despite a comparatively disappointing Firebird, Fischer makes emends with one of the finest Rites in the catalogue. I’ve studiously avoided comparisons with Litton, as I'm in the process of reviewing the download; suffice it to say, Fischer has nothing to fear from this quarter. As for Channel's low-rent Digipaks, the less said about those the better.
Not an unqualified success, perhaps, but for many this new Rite will become The Chosen One.
Dan Morgan

Masterwork Index: The Rite of Spring ~~ The Firebird















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