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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Sacre x 2

Le Sacre du printemps (reconstructed version of 29 May 1913) [35:08]
Le Sacre du printemps (final composer authorized version, 1967) [34:51]
David Zinman discussion of the work and differences between versions [35:07]
Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich/David Zinman
rec. Tonhalle Zürich, Switzerland, 2013
RCA RED SEAL 88843 095462 [35:08 + 69:58]

This is a lavish production with a booklet of over 100 pages, the first half in German and the second in English. It's all housed between cardboard covers and sleeves for each of the CDs. The notes contain a goldmine of information about Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps and many photos. There is an interview with David Zinman on his early experiences with Le Sacre under his mentor, Pierre Monteux; a discussion of the genesis of the work, reactions to its première, and the work’s plot; a chronology of events in 1913; and much more. However, the real benefit of this set is Zinman’s 35-minute spoken interview with Andreas Müller-Crepon, translating into German, that follows a performance of the reconstructed, “original,” 1913 version of the score on the second disc. The first disc contains only a performance of the final 1967 version as published by Boosey & Hawkes.

David Zinman discusses in great detail the differences between the 1913 and 1967 versions of Le Sacre in his spoken interview and provides sufficient examples, as performed by the Tonhalle orchestra, to give the listener much food for thought. The score from which Monteux conducted the Paris première was a copyist’s version that contained some obvious mistakes and other passages that did not have their intended effect due to the orchestration. Stravinsky revised his work first in 1929, again in the 1940s, and finally in 1967. Each revision brought the music into sharper focus, making it more brutal and less “impressionistic”—as we know it today.

The bassoon solo at the beginning of the work has been the topic of some controversy. For years it was thought to be one of the composer’s most original inspirations. Then it was discovered that it was based on a Lithuanian folksong. Nicolai Roerich, the ballet’s production designer, was a catalyst for the work and brought Stravinsky a collection of Lithuanian liturgical and folk melodies by one Anton Juszkiewicz. One of these was a wedding song (played on the second CD at the beginning of track 16), which Stravinsky turned into the bassoon opening. The wedding song is performed by the oboe with bassoon accompaniment on the recording and is much more conventional in its harmony and note progression than Stravinsky’s version. Stravinsky was able to take the tune and make it into something completely his own, similar to what he would do throughout his career. Zinman then demonstrates the differences in timbre between the slighter-toned French bassoon, as performed at the work’s première, and the fuller German bassoon commonly played now.

In the Danse des adolescentes the savage onslaught of the strings in the final version is due to the powerful use of the down-bows, contrasting with the weaker first version. Likewise, in the revised versions of the Jeu du rapt Stravinsky has the woodwinds play an octave higher and he uses more of them to emphasize the savagery there. In the Jeu de cités rivales, the horns play without mutes in the 1967 version to add clarity and focus.

Stravinsky revised the beginning of Part 2 many times. At first he had this part start with only two clarinets, but there wouldn’t have been enough time for the scenery-change. So he added thirty bars of music preceding the clarinets and changed the clarinets to trumpets. Finally, he “cleaned up” the Danse sacrale to make it easier to play and also easier for him to conduct. To do this, Stravinsky altered the strings’ articulation and simplified the timpani part.

It is fascinating to listen to the revised passages side-by-side with the original ones, but without Zinman’s explanations it would be difficult to spot many of the changes. If only the performances as recorded here were at the same level as the discussion. The accounts of both versions, though well played, are some of the tamest I’ve ever heard. Part of the problem is the recording itself. The orchestra is somewhat distant to make the impact it should, even though one can hear plenty of detail. However the blame, overall, must rest with Zinman. I compared these recordings with others in my collection and all of those easily demonstrated what is lacking here. Even the monaural 1951 recording with Monteux and the Boston Symphony (RCA Red Seal) is much more exciting than this. I thought perhaps Zinman was following in the footsteps of his mentor and attempting to emphasize the “impressionistic” elements in the score (including the revised version!), but Monteux is nearly as savage as such modern versions as Chailly’s with the Cleveland Orchestra (Decca) and Gergiev’s exaggerated one with the Kirov Orchestra (Philips). Stravinsky’s own 1960 account with the Columbia Symphony (Sony) is terrifically exciting and remains my benchmark, while Chailly’s is for me the best modern recording, superbly performed and recorded.

Even if the performances themselves are underwhelming, this new set is mandatory for anyone interested in the history of Le Sacre du printemps—for the documentary material and especially the recorded interview with Zinman.

Leslie Wright