It cannot have escaped the notice of most classical music lovers that Igor
Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps)was
staged a century ago for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
As expected, to mark the centenary a considerable number of recordings
have been newly released or reissued. Amongst them comes this beautifully
presented offering. Included with the audio disc is a DVD of a live
recording ofThe Rite. We are not told whether the audio disc
tracks were recorded live but I suspect that are studio recordings.
The notorious 1913 première of The Rite of Spring at
the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris drew
worldwide attention to what is now one of the most admired and popular
of all 20th century scores. Far less controversial was the earlier
The Firebird which again first saw the light of day in Paris
with the Ballets Russes. The dramatic one act ballet was a
resounding success and made the composer famous overnight. Based on
Russian folk tales The Firebird marks a new dawn in the evolution
of symphonic ballet. Last season I attended four performances of the
much loved The Firebird and it wouldn’t surprise me if
ithas now become Stravinsky’s most performed score. The
composer prepared three concert/ballet suites from The Firebird
in 1910, 1919 and 1945; here Sokhiev has chosen the one from 1919.
Ossetian conductor Tugan Sokhiev is a rising star for whom I predict
great things. Already he is music director of the Orchestre National
du Capitole de Toulouse and principal conductor and artistic director
of the Deutsches-Symphonie Orchester Berlin. I was certainly highly
impressed when I attended a stunning concert of his last September
at the Berlin Musikfest 2012 with the Deutsches-Symphonie Orchester
Berlin. The programme included Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite
and Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 3. Its origins go back
as far as the early 19th century and the Théâtre du Capitole’s
opera season. It was in 1945 that it acquired its status as a symphony
orchestra. Now it is a permanent orchestra based mainly in Toulouse’s
Halle aux Grains. The high regard in which it is held is reflected
in the 2011 listing in Le Figaro as one of the top three French
Under Sokhiev the Toulouse orchestra plays The Rite with great
skill and brilliance making an impressively unified sound. I felt
that Sokhiev was somewhat cautious in his approach. The playing would
have benefited from greater extremes of dynamic; more passion, more
vicious attack. It is when listening to the finest recordings such
as Sir Simon Rattle’s newly released live 2012 account with
the Berliner Philharmoniker on EMI that Sokhiev’s shortfalls
become marked. In the Augurs of Spring Sokhiev cannot compete
with Rattle whose shattering atmosphere of menace and violence is
truly impressive. The heavy, unnerving of anger and aggression in
Rattle’s Spring Rounds is unmatched in venting the full
weight of brutality. As I expected, the Toulouse musicians play quite
beautifully especially in the dreamy respite that is to be found in
The Sage. In the Dance of the Earth Rattle unleashes
an unrelenting barbaric outburst of toxic aggression and power by
comparison with which Sokhiev’s account is a pale reflection.
Sir Simon Rattle is a great Stravinsky conductor and the more that
I play his recent live 2012 account of The Rite of Spring (1947
revision) with the Berliner Philharmoniker the more convinced I am
by both the stunning performance and the sonics. Recorded live at
the Philharmonie this new release has become a clear first choice
for me on EMI Classics 7236112 (c/w Symphonies of Wind Instruments;
Apollon Musagète). It was only in 2010 that Rattle and
the Berliner Philharmoniker released their 2003 recording of The
Rite of Spring as the soundtrack disc to the 2009 Jan Kounen film
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky on NaïveV 5223.
At the time I made the Naïve release one of my MusicWeb International
‘Records of the Year’. I still greatly admire that excellent
performance but this new 2012 live Rattle account is even more electrifying.
In the 1919 suite to The Firebird the Toulouse orchestra under
the calm, firm Sokhiev’s direction fare much better. Their playing
has an abundance of drama that produces a glorious wash of warm sound.
The Dance of the Firebird is spiritedly played and conveys
a joyous feel with exceptional woodwind contributions. In the Supplication
of the Firebird the admirable playing has a marked tenderness
that contrasts markedly with the expressive energy. I enjoy the beautiful
playing of the famous Round Dance with its wonderfully memorable
song-like melody. Again the Toulouse woodwind, especially the oboe,
are given ample opportunity to shine. The haunting and moving Berceuse
is performed marvellously and in the Profound Darkness Sokhiev
establishes and sustains a dark and shadowy milieu.
The Firebird has been a highly popular choice in concert hall
and studio. There are numerous excellent versions in the catalogue.
I have been reappraising the recordings in my collection - complete
ballet and ballet suites - and have whittled down the tally down to
three main contenders that will provide great satisfaction.
There is the dramatic account of the complete The Firebird
ballet from Antal Dorati conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
from 1959 at Watford Town Hall, London. These are scintillatingly
fresh performances with a wonderful sense of drama together rendered
in vividly clear sound, if a touch dry. You can find that one on Mercury
Living Presence 432 012-2. Highly desirable is Bernard Haitink
with the Berlin Philharmonic playing the complete The Firebird
ballet from 1989 at the Berlin Philharmonie on Philips 426 317-2.
I found Haitink’s exciting account both beautiful and powerful;
intensely exhilarating stuff. I have greatly enjoyed the stirring
and most attractively played live account of 1919Firebird suite
from Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra recorded
in 2004 at the Munich Philharmonie on Sony 82876703262001. Jansons
certainly knows this score inside out. I was at the Philharmonie for
the Musikfest Berlin 2010 when he conducted the Concertgebouw
in a magnificent performance of the 1945 suite.
Returning to this Naïve release the DVD of the live Rite
that opened the orchestra’s 2011/12 season is beautifully shot.
Using a rather conventional direction there are no ultra-close shots
and surprising no views that I can recall from the front as in the
audience. The sound quality from my standard DVD player was splendid.
Naïve has clearly invested a lot of time and trouble in the beautifully
presented artwork and design of the hard backed booklet.
See also review by John
Masterwork Index: L’Oiseau
de Feu ~~ Le
Sacre du Printemps