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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Rite of Spring [33:01]
Petrushka (1911 version) [34:49]
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, November 1956
ELOQUENCE 4808903 [67:42]

The Rite of Spring [34:32]
Petrushka (1911 version) [34:49]
Firebird Suite (1910 version) [22:40]
Cleveland Orchestra (Rite), New York Philharmonic (Petrushka), BBC Symphony Orchestra (Firebird)/Pierre Boulez
rec: Severance Hall, Cleveland, July 1969 (Rite), Philharmonic Hall, New York, May 1971 (Petrushka), London, March 1967 (Firebird)
SONY CLASSICAL 88497 759030 [2 CDs: 92:01]

Here are two recordings of perhaps the two most popular Stravinsky masterpieces (Pétrouchka and Le Sacre du Printemps) from the 50s and 60s that have hovered around the realm of being classics… without perhaps quite having become true classics: Pierre Monteux’s from 1956 (Paris) and Pierre Boulez’ from 1971 (New York) and 1969 (Cleveland) respectively. What the two-CD set from Sony includes additionally is Boulez’ L’Oiseau de feu Suite with the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1967, which is wild-eyed, bare-bones stuff (especially the last movement!). There is no lush comfort zone of orchestration here, just a pretty skeletal Firebird on take-off… exciting and raw. (This is not to be mistaken for the complete Firebird which Boulez recorded with the New Yorkers in 1975 for CBS/Sony.) It might just be the most interesting performance on either of these CDs – and the one for which I imagine this Sony Twofer might most likely be bought.

Pétrouchka: Pierre Boulez’ orchestra (N.Y. Phil) is not the perfection one knows from whichever bands the later Boulez recordings feature… but that gives this Pétrouchka a little rawness and edge right off from the first tableau. For me, that can – in fact does – add to the experience… in any case it certainly doesn’t distract. In turn playful and chirpy and wild and frenzied, this Pétrouchka is a titillating affair… and comes very close to the Firebird Suite.

The cumbersomely named Orchestre de la Société des concerts du Conservatoire de Paris (partial predecessor of the Orchestre de Paris) meanwhile isn’t in the same cragged-edgy form as the New Yorkers. Under Pierre Monteux (who conducted the world premiere of this work – as well as the Rite), Petrushka rather lumbers about here, like a drunken sailor in the sun. Then again, there’s a loving, unhurried warmth about the recording that has its own, if less blatant, charm. Julius Katchen playing the piano part doesn’t hurt. Speaking of drunken sailors: How did they end up in the Parisian’s horn section for the ‘Danse infernale’? Rawness, I’ve just claimed in the paragraph above, is not necessarily a detraction in Stravinsky, but this might rightly crinkle even more forgiving noses.

The 1951 Boston recording of Monteux’ Rite of the Spring (review) is part of Sony’s 100th Anniversary Le Sacre Edition of “10 Reference Recordings” and can still be found quite easily in the RCA Red Seal Classic Library, coupled with his 1959 stereo Boston Pétrouchka. This Decca recording of the Rite comes from five years later and, if I’m not making a mistake, initially hit the market as an RCA Victor LP. Even with John Culshaw as the recording producer, the sound of the re-make on Decca isn’t top notch (though it’s stereo, as opposed to its predecessor) and the orchestra’s attacks are more spirited than precise. It is included in both of Decca’s 100th Anniversary Le Sacre Editions (the 4 CD compendium and the 20 CD monolith). I can’t say that the French go is a particular improvement over the earlier try; the Bostoners are in better shape but the Parisian recording has a nice – in any case strong – Gallic flavor to it. Listening to either version assumes willingness to forgo state of the art sound quality. For recordings made around that time, I find more satisfaction in the accounts of Fricsay’s 1954 RIAS Rite (DG, coupled with his 1953 Pétrouchka) and Bernstein’s 1958 CBS/Sony Rite (whereas the Anniversary Edition opted for his 1972 recording).

Or, if deductions for sound are acceptable, why not go back to Stravinsky’s own recordings? Good idea, and so I plugged the two Pétrouchkas from Sony’s stunning Stravinsky-does-himself box… the new, finally complete reiteration with the mono recordings (totally worth it!) and with the original cover art on the sturdy sleeves with actual spines. The 1960s recording comes from the album with the composer’s second Rite; the one that blazons the famous picture of Stravinsky lifting his sunglasses on the cover. Good stuff but I definitely like the mono recording from 1940 better: the dance of the Coachmen and the Grooms for one has impossible, irresistible, ear-to-ear-smile charm about it.

Boulez’ Sacre is a knock-out affair. It set standards at the time for how to perform this work with a razor blade’s precision. The Clevelanders show all their individual and collective skill and Boulez manages his trademark transparency. The thing is: the standard he set then, sensational at the time, has been matched by other conductors and orchestras, since, and won’t strike the listener as all that spectacular anymore. Even sticking just with Boulez’ later remake with the same orchestra on DG, you’ll get the same qualities in slightly better sound (not by much, but a bit brighter, which enhances some of Boulez’ qualities) and with an ounce more warmth between the harsh cruelties (review). This earlier recording remains excellent, if no longer essential, stuff. This performance is also included in Sony’s 100th Anniversary Le Sacre Edition. The subsequent DG recording is also included in both the above-mentioned Decca boxes.

The ultra-cheap (and inexpensive) Sony release of the Boulez has a detailed track-listing and nothing else on the folded insert (can’t call it a booklet, really). Minus the Firebird Suite, this recording is also available on Sony’s Pierre Boulez line with the white covers. The Firebird Suite, along with the Pulcinella Suite, the Scherzo fantastique and the Orchestral Suites is equally available on Sony/RCA’s “Classic Library” recordings (and the European cheapo-line “Esprit”). What this isn’t, though, is a box that brings all Boulez’s Stravinsky for Sony together - that is another quite recent release (88985465172).

There are more recordings of the Rite than you can shake a stick at. If I were to cull my collection down to those I’d consider essential, I’d be left with the aforementioned early Stravinsky recording (actually, since it’s the composer conducting, probably both), Fricsay, Bernstein, and Boulez’ second recording. To that I would add Riccardo Chailly’s new recording with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra as an example of how a lush and colorful Rite can also work very well, as well as Valery Gergiev’s Tooth-and-Nail Rite with the Mariinsky Orchestra (Philips/Decca).

Jens F. Laurson



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