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
‘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
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.
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.