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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) (1913, revised 1947) [34:03]
Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920) [9:47]
Apollon Musagète (1927/28, revised 1947) [31:29]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 8-10 November 2012 (Rite); 20-22 September 2007 (Symphonies); 16-18 February 2011 (Apollon), Philharmonie, Berlin
EMI CLASSICS 723 6112 [75:36]

A score that was damned by critics and shocked audiences a century ago, The Rite of Spring, is one of the most performed and recorded ballet works in the repertoire. The hundredth anniversary of its composition has predictably produced a considerable number of recordings including this one from the BPO under Rattle. It’s their first release since Rattle announced he will leave his post at the end of his contract in 2018.
Initially I was rather surprised that the BPO had chosen to issue this live 2012 Rite. It was only in 2010 that they released their 2003 recording contained on the soundtrack to the Jan Kounen film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky on Naïve. I made that release one of my Recordings of the Year and still greatly admire that electrifying performance. Another example of Rattle’s predilection and capacity for Stravinsky’s music is demonstrated by his acclaimed live 2008 disc of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms; Symphony in C and the Symphony in Three Movements. It was that Symphony of Psalms that won the Grammy award in 2009 for Best Choral Performance.
Rattle’s new account of The Rite was recorded at a series of concerts in November 2012 at the Berlin Philharmonie and now having played it I can understand why it was selected for release. Although Rattle’s interpretation is essentially similar in style to his 2003 recording it does have rather more dramatic heft and the recording is more vivid. In the first section Adoration of the Earth the Introduction is a compelling depiction of spring’s renewal with the woodwind giving off an otherworldly quality. Quite splendidly played the opening bassoon solo has an earthy reediness to its timbre. With frenzied stamping in Augurs of Spring Rattle provides a shattering atmosphere of menace and violence punctuated by bubbling woodwind figures. Fresh and free-spirited the Dance of the Adolescents develops into a dramatic reverie. In the steely, war-like Ritual of Abduction the continuing tension Rattle generates becomes increasingly hard to bear.With flickering and speedily rotating woodwind motifs Spring Rounds quickly builds to heavy, unnerving anger. From 2:04 Rattle vents the full weight of the orchestra’s brutal power. Moving briskly forward in the Ritual of the Two Rival Tribes savage yelps and earth-shattering pounding take centre-stage. A beautiful theme on the strings makes unsuccessful attempts to break through the clamour. The Procession of the Sage is nerve-jangling - almost intolerable. A dreamy passage in The Sage provides a very short respite from all that tension. In the closing section of the first part Rattle unleashes an unrelentingly barbaric outburst of aggressive power.

The second section of the ballet The Sacrifice, begins with an eerie and rather unsettling Introduction that feels relatively calm - at least on the surface. The music shimmers with impressive contributions from the expert Berlin woodwind. Rattle ensures that we are made aware of that undercurrent of dark foreboding. In the Mystic Circle of the Adolescents it feels like brief glimpses of hope are to be found in a tormented world where one of the girls is selected for sacrifice. Venomous and unrelenting hammer-blows of doom-laden conflict dominate the Glorification of the Chosen One. The effect is quite remarkable. The Evocation of the Ancestors very gradually sees the tension cooling. Rattle generates a heady and intoxicating atmosphere of optimism in the Ritual Action of the Ancestors with its contrasting section of wild aggression. Ferocious playing in the Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One twists, stretches, rips and claws at Stravinsky’s rhythms and harmonies. Amid these unremitting assaults the torturous hammer-blows increase in intensity until the music rises to a shattering final climax.

The Symphonies of Wind Instruments was completed in 1920 and bears a dedication to Debussy who had died a couple of years earlier. For this relatively short single movement score for winds only Rattle uses Stravinsky’s original scoring. The term ‘symphonies’ is used not in the conventional sense but with the meaning of ‘sounding together’. The music builds in melodies of a Russian folk origin. Stravinsky uses the harmonies of the wind instruments in “short litanies” of various groupings. These produce rather unusual sonorities of a stark and rather earthy beauty and an array of clashing colours. Rattle lets the music unfold in a fresh and unforced manner with nothing feeling hurried.
It was wealthy patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge who commissioned Stravinsky to write a ballet score requiring no more than six dancers and not to last more than half an hour. In response Stravinsky looked to episodes from Greek mythology using the theme of God Apollo with three muses of poetry, mime and dance: Calliope, Polyhymnia and Terpsichore. The two tableaux are scored for strings alone and bear the title Apollon musagète, Apollo being the leader of the muses. This is music of such classical purity and beauty that it could be described as the pinnacle of Stravinsky’s neo-classicism. Rattle and his Berlin string players provide an interpretation of clarity and elegance finding an ethereal quality that is rarely achieved. Whilst the playing of all the sections has a strong appeal I especially enjoyed the Pas d’action: Apollo et les trois Muses with such gloriously melodic writing for high strings over a firm bed of basses. I cherished the deeply tender mood of the Variation de Terpsichore (Allegretto).In the final section Apothéose marked Largo e tranquil the string writing has a solemn understated beauty.
The sound quality provided by the engineers for EMI is outstandingly vivid and excellently balanced. The amount of fine detail is remarkable. All in all, a resounding success.
Michael Cookson   

See also review by John Quinn

Masterwork Index: The Rite of Spring ~~ Apollon musagète