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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) [33:31]
Pétrouchka (1911 version) [34:45]
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. 2013/14, Metz, Grenoble and Frankfurt
Reviewed as a 24/44.1 download from eclassical.com
No bookle
ACTES SUD MUSICALES ASM15 [68:22]

If, like me, you were bowled over by the unexpected vigour, transparency and sonorities of Les Siècles’ Rite at the 2013 BBC Proms then this release will be very welcome indeed. But what makes this recording different from all the others in the catalogue? Well, for a start it uses the score that would have been heard at the première on 29 May 1913; also, this French band, led by the imaginative François-Xavier Roth, play on instruments of the period. The same applies to their recording of Petrushka, which is given here in the 1911 version. That’s hardly a new conceit – the HIPP brigade have been doing it for years – but it’s relatively rare where 20th-century repertoire is concerned.

First impressions are very favourable. In particular there’s a heart-lifting sense of renewal and rediscovery; that’s especially welcome with the Rite, given the number of rather ordinary and predictable renditions I’ve heard in recent years. Indeed, at the height of 2013’s centenary glut I found myself thinking there should be a moratorium on performances of this now overplayed score. That was until I heard these forces at the Proms; their Petrushka is not so much a filler as a substantial bonus.

That’s the good news; the bad is that Actes Sud Musicales don’t offer pdf booklets with their downloads. As I pointed out in my recent article ‘Bum Notes – or Dude, Where’s My Booklet?’ this is a problem that must be addressed without delay. In the case of new works and fresh approaches to old ones informative liner-notes help listeners to evaluate the artistic merits of such enterprises and come to a judgment about whether their stated goals have been met. There are no excuses for such omissions, and I urge all labels to ensure that booklets are included with their downloads at the point of sale.

With that major gripe out of the way, let’s get back to the music. The start of this Rite is positively dripping with atmosphere, and the clarity and separation of instruments is just astonishing. As with that Proms performance Roth simply refuses to embellish or overdrive the music, so it unfolds with a thrilling inevitability that one rarely hears in concert or on record. Hypnotic figures and chattering woodwinds add to the growing sense of intoxication, and those dry drum thwacks will make you jump. The dragging rhythms of Spring Rounds have just the right degree of heavy-lidded languor at the start, and the rival tribes gyrate with real abandon too.

The essential strength of this reading is its focus on a simple, compelling narrative; there is no need for added histrionics or control-room tweakery, and I can’t detect evidence of either. It’s all there in the notes. The perfectly scaled plosions of The Sage are a case in point; indeed, they are as hair-raising as I’ve ever heard them. In The Dance of the Earth Roth manages to control tension and maintain a high level of detail, which makes for a uniquely satisfying conclusion to Part I. Those used to hi-fi spectaculars or Leonard Bernstein may feel underwhelmed by such discipline; that said, I've rarely heard a performance of the Rite that reveals the score's intricacies as well as this one does.

In Part II Roth’s success in evoking the work’s primal strangeness has as much to do with his bracing, clarified sonorities as it does with the febrile writing itself. Just sample The Mystic Circles, which have seldom sounded so disembodied; and while The Glorification of the Chosen One lacks the last ounce of oomph it still has the power to tease and transfix. Loveliness isn’t a word that’s often applied to this music, but Roth finds it in the delicate scoring of The Evocation of the Ancestors. The sense of an actual ceremony being played out before our eyes is palpable throughout; more important, the element of dance – so often subsumed in more excitable, motoric readings – remains paramount.

Petrushka follows with barely a break. I daresay that isn’t a problem on the CD, but it’s one that plagues rather a lot of downloads. I really would have preferred a longer pause before being plunged into the unsettling milieu of these Shrovetide puppets. My first impression is that while others cultivate a more cutting edge to this music Roth and his players opt for comparatively soft outlines. That said, those rollicking drums have a tautness – a muscularity if you like – that seems entirely right in this darkly supernatural setting. For all its virtues I’m not convinced this performance is as strange - as resolutely 'other' - as it can be; I certainly prefer a sharper focus and more pell-mellish progress.

Minor caveats aside these are very worthwhile performances; indeed, those who think they know these scores will be surprised at how much other performers seem to miss. Here and elsewhere Roth’s music-making is very individual, so it won't appeal to everyone. An afterthought; listening right through a few days after I’d penned this review I did wonder whether the surprising number of recording sessions and venues might have compromised coherence and thrust in places. Also, I'm not convinced the 24-bit download is enough of an advance over the 16-bit to warrant the extra cost. The sound, while not particularly upfront, is very decent.

Illuminating and individual; the lack of documentation is inexcusable.

Dan Morgan
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