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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Sacre du Printemps (1947 version) [34:03]
Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920) [9:47]
Apollon Musagète (1947 revision) [31:29]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 8-10 November 2012 (Sacre); 20-22 September 2007 (symphonies); 16-18 February, 2011 (Apollon), Philharmonie Berlin
EMI CLASSICS 7236112 [75:36]

The record companies are marking the centenary of the 1913 première of Le Sacre du Printemps in some style. Universal has already issued a box of twenty discs containing no fewer than 38 performances from its archives plus three performances of the piano duet version (details). Sony Classical is bringing out a slightly more modest set containing a ‘mere’ ten recordings, including two by the composer himself (details). In addition there have been some individual recordings issued or re-issued and no doubt more will follow. It’s hard to think of another piece which would attract such attention on the anniversary of its first performance though, of course, the arrival of Le Sacre was a mould-breaking event in the world of ballet and before long it had established itself as an equally significant landmark work in the concert repertoire.
 
What I suspect will be EMI’s main - perhaps only - contribution to the celebrations comes in the shape of a new recording from Sir Simon Rattle. I think I’m right in saying that this is his fourth audio recording of the work, the first coming from very early in his career when he set it down with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in 1977 (began as an Enigma LP and then reappeared on ASV and Brilliant Classics); I’ve not heard that recording, which I doubt is still available. He recorded it with the CBSO in 1987. I have the original CD issue and it’s since been reissued in various collections. Simon Thompson and Carla Rees both regarded that recording highly - as do I - though Brian Wilson, while by no means dismissing it, felt Rattle was “a little restrained” in the work; I know what he means. Rattle and the Berliners recorded it in 2003 for the soundtrack of a film and Michael Cookson was loud in his praises. There’s also a 2009 Blu-Ray recording with the Berlin Philharmonic (review).
 
This latest recording is taken from concert performances, as seems to be Rattle’s wont these days. Le Sacre is trademark Rattle repertoire, being full of orchestral colour and requiring the precision of balance and rhythmic clarity which are hallmarks of his conducting style. As seems to be EMI’s way in the Philharmonie the recording is fairly close - though not excessively so, in my opinion. The 1987 CBSO performance was set down under studio conditions in the Arts Centre at Warwick University and there’s more distance between the orchestra and the listener: some may well prefer that balance.
 
This new recording is most impressive, starting with sinuous, unsettling woodwinds in the Introduction. As Stravinsky racks up the tension Rattle responds and by the time we get to Jeu du rapt the music is violent yet controlled. From 2:04 in Rondes printanières Rattle gets the orchestra to unleash a fearsomely pagan sound and later on Cortège du sage is primitive and hugely powerful. The Danse de la terre is, as it should be, an explosive end to Part I.
 
The opening of Part II is the sort of music that Rattle, with his famously keen ear, does so well. Both the Introduction and Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes are scrupulously balanced; every detail is clarified - though with no undue highlighting - and given its rightful place in the texture. Action rituelle des ancêtres starts in a very subdued but menacing fashion and builds to a massive climax (2:25-2:44) in which the Berlin horns are brazen. Just before this point (between1:34 and 1:43) there’s a little, pointed fragment of tune in the violins and Rattle brings this out excellently; he achieves the same effect, though not so markedly, in his CBSO recording. The concluding Danse sacrale: L’Élu is brutal and savage, especially from 2:32.
 
This is a pretty considerable account of Le Sacre. I think there is, at times, a degree of greater urgency than was the case in 1987 - perhaps the presence of an audience helped; perhaps it’s the fact that an even more experienced Rattle is now at the helm of a virtuoso orchestra. I noticed, for instance, that the last few minutes are a fraction steadier in the CBSO recording. However, although the Berliner Philharmoniker is, as I said, a virtuoso ensemble, the CBSO of 1987 give a pretty good account of themselves. I’ve found once or twice already when comparing recordings of works that Rattle has recorded with both orchestras that the CBSO recordings are by no means put in the shade and this is another such example. One small point is that on the original issue of the CBSO recording it was divided into a rather paltry seven tracks. That may have been improved on the reissued versions but, by contrast, this new recording has fifteen tracks.
 
As before Rattle pairs Le Sacre with Apollon Musagète - the CBSO recording, made in 1988, used the later title, Apollo. Here, I think, the choice is more clear-cut. For all their qualities, the CBSO strings can’t quite match the sheen and depth of tone of the Berliners. The 1988 recording was also made in Warwick and in this case I think the more distant balance rather works against the CBSO. The Berliners are recorded more closely and this emphasises the sheer quality of their collective sound. Rattle is, I fancy, a touch more expansive this time - his Birmingham performance played for 30:06. In the Variation d’Apollon the Berlin string principals offer poised, cultivated playing - why were they not named, I wonder; their Birmingham colleagues were and, to be honest, both teams deserve to be credited. I love the graceful way the Berliners deliver the Pas d’action: Apollon et les trois Muses; this is distinguished playing. Equally pleasing is the scurrying playing in Variation de Polymnie. Overall this is a refined and excellent performance of Apollon Musagète which benefits not only from the virtuosity of the Berlin string players but also from the fastidious ear of their conductor.
 
For good measure EMI add a 2007 performance of Symphonies of Wind Instruments. I’m not sure that this has been available on a separate disc before, though it was included in a four-CD box of Rattle’s Stravinsky recordings, mainly from Birmingham, which EMI issued a while ago (review). It’s included here in a 2013 digital re-mastering. I remember my first encounter with this score, fully forty years ago, at an orchestral weekend directed by Arthur Butterworth. As a teenager I was baffled by the piece but nowadays I hope I can appreciate a bit better its lineage and what it’s ‘about’. This is another score that requires great precision and, therefore, it’s meat and drink to Rattle. The performance is pungent and meticulously balanced. This is not a score to which I warm instinctively but I do admire it and, short though it is, it’s a telling work in Stravinsky’s output. It’s expertly served here.
 
In summary, if your prime interest is Le Sacre and you already have Rattle’s 1987 recording then this new recording probably comes under the heading of ‘nice to have’ rather than ‘must have’. However, I think the recording of Apollon Musagète represents a definite advance. This is an excellent disc and anyone wanting to hear Simon Rattle in Stravinsky should certainly hear it - as well as his fine recording of Symphony of Psalms (review).
 
John Quinn   

Masterwork Index: Le sacre ~~ Appollon


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