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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Sacre du printemps (1947 revision) [34:03]
Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920) [9:47]
Apollon musagète (1947 revision) [31:29]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 20-22 September 2007 (Symphonies of Wind Instruments), 16-18 February 2011 (Le Sacre du printemps), and 8-10 November 2012 (Apollon musagète), Philharmonie, Berlin
EMI CLASSICS 7 23611 2 [75:36]

It is always fascinating to compare a conductor’s views on a work or composer from one period in their career to another, and Sir Simon Rattle’s association with Stravinsky has been a very long term affair. Many will know his EMI box set (see review), which is a very fine collection by any standards. This new recording of The Rite of Spring with the Berlin Philharmonic has created controversy in some quarters, but there seem to be more similarities than differences here with the Birmingham recording and the only thing I found myself wondering is why it would displease anyone.
There is an intensity and verve in the Birmingham recording which has gained many admirers, and there is something of a trade-off between this and the greater refinement of the Berlin playing. Rattle’s direction is never less than gripping however, and even with his trademark measured tempi the tension and excitement builds remarkably effectively. The animal and bird sounds of the first part Introduction encroach onto Messiaen territory here, such is the distinctness of each utterance. The scenic character of each section passes by your imagination with startling definition, and the clarity of the recording means you hear little details missed in other versions. The brass is particularly potent, getting your teeth rattling at the opening of the Jeu des cités rivales, and though this is a performance full of virtuoso high jinx we’re never pushed beyond the intention of the work and the roughness and brutality expressed in detail through Stravinsky’s score.
I always like to go back to the source with this kind of thing, and Stravinsky’s own tremendous recording of The Rite of Spring can be had in the must-have Sony big box set (see review). I always forget how intense this recording is, with a somewhat artificial but truly gritty orchestral sound and the real sense that you are up amongst the sweat and bruises of the dancers. Rattle’s is a rich experience, and there is no escaping the benefit of modern technology when it comes to the recorded sound, but bouncing between the two makes you realise quite how ‘inside’ the music Stravinsky brings us. Rattle’s is fabulous and impassioned, but remains a landscape of the mind as much as a physical assault on the senses. Just compare the Glorification de l’élue and the final Danse sacrale in the second part of the work. Where Rattle shakes a powerful fist, Stravinsky somehow manages to rip the very air in front of our faces.
I raved about Andrew Litton’s BIS recording of Le Sacre du printemps not so long ago (see review), so I can’t get away without comparing these two. I have to admit Rattle gets more character into the burgeoning fauna of the Introduction, but after that it’s more a question of recording perspective. Tempi are roughly the same in the Augurs of Spring and elsewhere, but the BIS engineers place the orchestra a little further away from us, preferring to ensure that all of Stravinsky’s details are present but not quite so ‘in your face’ the whole time. Both are very exciting and involving, but in the end the EMI version is the more wearing. With the BIS disc the low drum thwacks are the more telling, startling even, by emerging from an orchestra held at a little more than arms length, and when the climaxes arrive the teeth are clenched to the point of crumbling Tom & Jerry style. Rattle is riveting, but the full orchestral sound can be a bit overwhelming on top of all of the other overwhelming stuff. There are other moments where I distinctly prefer Litton, for instance in the huge orchestral ‘gong strokes’ about 30 seconds into the Introduction of the second part. Rattle delays these a touch and then makes them into more of a dynamic arch - I’m tempted to use the word ‘rainbow’, where Litton allows the initial ‘whoom’ to fade with chilling magic. Litton finds and expresses the unearthly mystery in these points, where Rattle is more Indiana Jones film-score. Where the EMI disc does win is in having access points to each of the titled sections, whereas BIS just has the first and second parts in two big chunks.
Rattle’s Symphony of Wind Instruments hasn’t changed much over the years, the timings between the Birmingham recording and this Berlin one differing by all of 2 seconds. Rattle’s account was never really my favourite but this later recording is a winner in terms of intonation and instrumental colour, and has sold itself well to my sentimental streak. Stravinsky’s own recording is alas in historic mono sound and not performed to what you would consider superlative standards, but at 9:10 the composer’s timing is closer to that of Boulez in his Deutsche Grammophon version (see review). I prefer the music to have a bit more zip earlier on, though Rattle does have nice tenderness and restraint in the chorales and gentler central passages, and the low instruments are nicely captured in the closing minutes.
I agree with John Quinn about the quality of performance and recording in Apollon musagète over the Birmingham version, but this is a piece which I feel a bit more uncomfortable in this recording. This is Stravinsky in neo-classical mode, and while the music deserves expressive playing I can’t help hearing a certain amount of self-indulgent wallowing in this performance - it’s just too lush and rich for my taste. If you prefer a smaller scale Apollo then Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists are hard to beat (see review), but that’s something of a chalk and cheese comparison. Robert Craft and the London Symphony Orchestra on Naxos would be a more realistic litmus test of how this can be played without quite so much red plush on the chocolate box. If you want your Apollo to sound more like Richard Strauss then Rattle will be the one for you. His performance is good and healthily lively in the faster movements, but the opening Naissance d’Apollon and little details such as the overdone string vibrato in the Variation de Terpsichore tend to put me off.
Dominy Clements 

See also reviews by John Quinn and Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: The Rite of Spring ~~ Apollon musagète