Igor STRAVINSKY (1882 – 1971) Rite of Spring (1913)
rec. 7–9 October 2013, location not specified SONY CLASSICAL 88875 061412 [34:37]
Teodor Currentzis, it could be argued, goes out of his way to court controversy. His podium manner is expressive to the point of distraction, and his performances divide opinion to a quite exceptional degree. To some he is charismatic and brilliant; to others, unmusical and vulgar. Currentzis himself has proclaimed he is the saviour of classical music, but we have been here before. In the ruins of the post-war Berlin Philharmonie, a young Rumanian conductor stood in front of the Berliner Philharmoniker, his chiselled good looks and Paganiniesque black forelocks lashing like a whip around his face, as he delivered a fire and brimstone performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. His name was Sergiu Celibidache. Currentzis may think he is the new Celibidache, but apart from a slight passing physical resemblance and a flair for the dramatic there the comparison firmly ends. For one thing, whereas Celi’s phenomenal ear for orchestral detail relied almost entirely on his remarkable ability to balance instruments within an orchestra, Currentzis — at least on the evidence of the sometimes very odd balances in this recording — relies on his engineers to do it for him. Much closer a model is the conductor he famously fell out with a few years ago, Valery Gergiev. This new recording of the Rite of Spring shares much with Gergiev’s own view of this work, including the ability to reduce the listener to a state of near narcolepsy. Enigmatic the recording may be in places, but it’s a car crash as well with tempos flipped on their head, and prolonged periods of stasis that all but break the backbone of the tension.
That sense of frozen time, and a general inability for Currentzis to stick to the marked tempo, begins from the first bar. Marked Lento, the opening bassoon solo - rather prosaic and less mysterious than in most western recordings - is taken very broadly indeed. It sets the tone for a performance that largely lacks a sense of rhythmic cohesion. I might even go so far as to say that Stravinsky’s complex metrical writing simply eludes Currentzis much of the time. This is a performance where the screws are often in danger of coming loose, and where snarling brass chords and thunderous percussion are simply decoration against a rusting infrastructure. Far from being a Rite that looks back it often seems one borne of the age of the sound-bite.
MusicAeterna does demonstrate a flair for virtuosity, although one is tempted to say this is virtuosity that is so well rehearsed that it simply lacks fire in the belly; it’s all rather neatly engineered to my ears. Take, for example, the opening to the Augurs of Spring. Currentzis launches into it with a scathing and blistering tempo - one of the quickest of all performances - but it isn’t actually exciting. It’s simply fast. Likewise, in Game of Abduction the percussion don’t punch you in the stomach in the same way that James Levine with the Met Orchestra do (DG). Currentzis’ view of the Rite is really to de-Westernise it in an attempt to bring it back to its pagan and folk roots. This almost works in Spring Rounds simply because the Siberian thinness of the orchestral sound - this just sounds like a small orchestra much of the time - makes it suggestive of a spectral sonority, rather than the more sophisticated western sound we are used to. What I’m less convinced of is Currentzis’ blatant intervention with huge ritardandos which sound more calculated to dramatize his rampant and sudden change in gear at the close of Spring Rounds. If this isn’t playing to the gallery I don’t know what is. In Procession of the Sage, however, his fast tempo leads to very muffled articulation, in part I suspect because Currentzis is just smoothing out textures. This is suddenly corrected for an exhilarating climax to the Dance of the Earth. It’s almost, however, where this performance ceases being even remotely exciting altogether.
Part II, The Sacrifice, reminded me less of Stravinsky and more of the depressing inhumanity of the Gulags. I’m afraid to say it feels like one almighty trudge through the mire. Currentzis takes forever to lift the music out of the shallows; a sense of portentousness hangs over much of this sacrifice. Stravinsky may well be writing for prominently played muted trumpets and woodwind here, but Currentzis and his orchestra are singularly devoid of any contrast in their playing; it’s all rather grey, all rather like looking out into a blizzard of wet snow. The Glorification of the Chosen One, so discordant and violent, and actually very brutal in Currentzis’ hands, is too brief to lift the performance out of the ditch of despair it has fallen into at this stage. I’m not convinced that the wildly contrasting swings of Ritual Action of the Ancestors is enough of an engine motor to get the performance towards its inexorable conclusion. In fact, the Sacrificial Dance does bring out the best in Currentzis: percussion are incisive, brass are very disciplined, and it’s good to hear the woodwind shrills sounding so demonic above it all - but this sounds close to them being deliberately miked. That the final chord should be so incisive is almost ironic when so much of the performance has lacked this very quality beforehand.
There’s no question that this recording is an enigma, though Sony’s claim that it will be the new benchmark for recordings of the Rite of Spring is wide of the mark. By going back to the roots of the work’s original folk origins Currentzis does pose interesting questions about rhythm and phrasing. Typically, Currentzis asks these questions and writes about the Rite not in prose but in a five-page poem printed in the booklet. Touching on T.S. Eliot (The Waste Land), Wittgenstein, Xenakis, the immune system, DNA, algebra and so on it’s little wonder that this realignment of the Rite’s place in western music (or rather replacing it) has led to a performance that is so fractured and fragmented. There are moments in this recording that are thrilling and ear-opening; but there are too many moments that just don’t convince. Sony’s psychedelic, pointillist cover art, assuming you can even read what the dots say, seems oddly appropriate for a performance that is largely a conundrum.