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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) The Rite of Spring (1911-1913) (revised 1947 version) [34:45]
rec. 7-9 October 2013, Stolberger Strasse, Cologne, Germany. DDD SONY CLASSICAL 88875061412 [34:45]
Although track timings are provided, Sony nowhere states the full running time of this mid-price disc; one glance above at my own calculation will tell you why. It is in fact one of the slower accounts on record but that will hardly compensate for the lack of pairings in the eyes of the punter used to getting a full eighty minutes even on bargain discs.
The performance itself is in fact very good indeed, both in terms of engineering and playing. Even so, the short playing time and lack of fillers are not offset by conductor Teodor Currentzis’ rather pretentious verse “The Mystery of Spring” (presumably translated from his original Greek or Russian into English, German and French), as opposed to any notes or biographies. All this might be forgiven if this recording were unique and indispensable. Currentzis claims that his aim was to capture “the pure Russian essence of the piece”; thus we might infer that he thinks previous recordings have failed to do so. In fact conductors such as Gergiev and Stravinsky himself might have had something to say about that.
For comparison purposes, I pulled down from my shelves four other recordings: the two by those two aforementioned conductors in 1999 with the Kirov and 1961 with the Columbia SO respectively, and those by Rattle with the National Youth Orchestra in 1977 and Ozawa with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1968. Astonishingly, it is the latter, nearly fifty years old, which continues to retain my loyalties, both in terms of sound and performance. Rattle’s recording is a tour de force but the NYO cannot compete in terms of sound or orchestral opulence. Stravinsky’s own recording, while swift and incisive, is in muddy sound and tends to confirm the observation that composers do not necessarily make the best conductors of their own music. He fails to generate the excitement and tension of the best versions. Gergiev’s is massive and very detailed, impressive in its own way, but it is the young Ozawa whose hell-for-leather Úlan comes as close to as criminally graphic a representation of ritual murder in music as you are likely to hear.
To be fair, Currentzis runs him closes but he takes risks with the tempo of at least four of the slower sections which, to my ears, do not quite come off compared with Ozawa’s fleeter, crisper execution. The Introductions to both Parts 1 and 2 are respectively half a minute and a full minute slower than Ozawa’s, sacrificing tension; the same leisurely approach afflicts the “Spring Rounds” and the “Mystical Circles of the Young Girls”, which are also around a minute longer. These timings add up and explain why Currentzis’s version is one of the longest on record and, despite its impact, fails to rival the very best. He is apparently compensating for any loss of momentum by taking the faster movements a shade too fast. By contrast, I find Gergiev freer, jazzier, more inclined to apply slancio and emphasise the ostinato rhythms, resulting in a scarier effect and a greater sense of over-arching vision. Currentzis’ overview is more discrete and episodic. Rattle is first refined and controlled, then dark and menacing, but Currentzis’ management of the crescendo in the “Dances of the Young Girls” is masterly. I love the buzz, thrum and thwack of his double basses. Each conductor has something important to say about this momentous music and I do not want to denigrate any of them. Ultimately the combination of extraordinarily vivid, re-mastered “High Performance” vintage sound, more thrills and a coupling with “Petroushka” providing seventy minutes of great music make Ozawa’s recording my enduring recommendation.