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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Rite of Spring (1911-13) [30.09]
SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg/Jascha Horenstein
rec. April 1957, Baden-Baden
Originally issued on Vox with a stereo transfer made from Classica CLAS 108
Symphony of Psalms (1930) [26.48]
Choeur et Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française/Jascha Horenstein
rec. 30 June 1953, Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris
Originally released on Pathé with transfer made from Angel ANG 13101

The question is, why would you want to purchase or indeed listen to a 1950s recording by a sometimes-overlooked conductor of works you can hear in the best possible recordings of our own time?

In the case of the Symphony of Psalms this recording was released by the American Angel label in 1954 but had earlier won the prestigious ‘Grand Prix du Disque’. However Andrew Rose, in the brief notes, says that ‘it was not well recorded’. He goes on to say that “the LP was well pressed and XR has made a superb job of rendering it only listenable, perhaps for the first time, but also very enjoyable”. So it was with some interest that I put it on.

On the debit side don’t expect to hear all of the detail at climactic passages where there is some congestion - for instance at fig. 12 in movement 1. During this movement the orchestra, in places, drowns out the chorus. Also on the downside, the sopranos especially appear rather elderly. The woodwind, particularly the oboes, sound a little tight and strained. There is a plus side. First I much enjoyed the exciting attack Horenstein (1898-1973) engendered in the first movement. Stravinsky gives crochet=92 in the score and Horenstein goes at it at crotchet=112; it's quite thrilling. After that his tempi are as marked or even a touch steady. Secondly at fig. 14 in movement 2 the dotted rhythm is given a real thrilling punch in voices and orchestra. Thirdly, I heard some details for the first time in the piano and woodwind. Fourthly, the chorus sing with excellent Italianate vowels and the diction is clear throughout. In fact, the overall interpretation makes it one which clearly deserved its award.

The Rite of Spring comes from a few years later and was recorded at a time when it was less common to hear the work in concert than now. Horenstein had been born in Kiev which is now part of the Ukraine and it has been established for some years that Stravinsky had employed Ukrainian folk melodies in his work. He knew Stravinsky and was his junior by sixteen years.

A onetime colleague of mine at MusicWeb International, the late Tony Duggan, is quoted in the notes as saying that the performance has “greater astringency and earthiness, than the … sound picture conveys” (see full review here). One feels that there could be an original, even great, performance here which can’t quite get out. In addition Duggan adds that parts of the work could “have done with a real virtuoso orchestra” offering the possibility that Horenstein did not have the tools at his disposal to raise the orchestra to the required level. You might think therefore that details could again be lost due to the orchestra and the standard of the recording. Instead I found myself hearing some of the finer niceties of orchestration very clearly especially in the long introduction to part 2.

My main objection is to the somewhat 'bathroomy' acoustic of the Baden-Baden hall. This is especially noticeable in ‘The Augurs of Spring’ in part 1. It may be that accounting for this Horenstein takes it at a slightly more pedestrian pace than others right through to fig. 37; this also applies to the final ‘Sacrificial Dance’. Yet perhaps he was simply accommodating the orchestra. Again this makes some details much clearer than in many modern renditions which seem only to look for an excuse to show virtuosity. My other objection is that even at its lowest level the treble will appear over-bright by modern standards. This seems to have been a characteristic of American recordings of that period.

To recap, I have much enjoyed Horenstein’s Rite, less so the Symphony. It's certainly worth keeping this disc as a reference point not only to show how these now iconic pieces were done over fifty years ago but also as an example of high standard transfers at their best. Worth searching out for your library.

Gary Higginson

Masterwork Index: Rite of Spring