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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le sacre du printemps (1947 version) [35:09]
L’oiseau de feu (1945 version) [29:35]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, München Philharmonie im Gasteig, 14-16 January 2009 (Le sacre); München Herkulessaal des Residenz, 14-17 November, 2016 (L’oiseau)
BR KLASSIK 900168 [64:44]

Oh dear! If any evidence were needed that Mariss Jansons can be one of the dullest conductors on record this CD would be it. These are, it appears, new recordings – though in the case of the Rite of Spring it has been lying in the archives of Bavarian Radio for nine years. It ought to have remained there. What is also unusual about this recording, however, is the completely lifeless playing of the orchestra – something I’ve not really encountered with this partnership, even when Jansons is at his most uninteresting. Their last recording I reviewed, a not especially notable Bruckner Eighth, was at least beautifully played; these Stravinsky performances are really quite rough in places and they often sound as if they weren’t composed by Stravinsky at all; the impressionist brush strokes, the warmth of the phrasing, the sheer lack of brutality is much closer to someone like Debussy, or the Schoenberg of the late Nineteenth Century.

So, what makes a great Rite of Spring? Whilst it is certainly not the rule of thumb that the best are live recordings (and this Jansons recordings is, and inexplicably dull as a concert event) I have often found myself drawn to the excitement of one-off performances. I fall very much into the camp where I prefer a Rite as unhinged and as brutal as possible; others, of course, prefer a more subtle approach. James Levine and The MET Orchestra are probably my first choice for this work – a visceral, knife-edge performance with incendiary – even frenzied - percussion playing, though this performance above all others is unrelenting once it grips hold of you. Levine’s is also one of the few studio recordings that can pass itself off as live; it distinctly feels as if it was made in a single take. But on any given day I could go for Antal Dorati and the Minnesota Orchestra, who leave a trail of fire in their wake, on Mercury – though since reissued on a Dorati Society CD - (1953), Igor Markevitch’s incomparable 1959 Philharmonia Rite, or Svetlanov’s molten extremes of savagery and silkiness. Not all live Rite’s are equal, however: Gergiev bores me to death in this work, which really doesn’t bode well for Munich audiences wanting to hear the piece.

But a great concert Rite is often an event in itself. Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic at the Berlin Festival in 1971 are phenomenal – and anyone who knows the performance will never forget hearing it - and again in Salzburg in 1978 (another incandescent and violent performance) is just as magical – and where Karajan summons up an ending this full of menace is anyone’s guess (still available from some sources on a Palexa CD). So too does Pierre Boulez caught live with the Philharmonia Orchestra in February 1991, astonishing in its brutality and force-of-nature barbarity. Just as memorable is Jean Martinon and the NHK SO in May 1963 - one of the fastest Rites I’ve ever heard. I rather like the two Kobayashi live performances too – his tendency towards faster speeds can sometimes blur accents, but they are undeniably exciting and very vivid.

Jansons had, of course, been an assistant to Karajan in Salzburg between 1969 and 1970, a period when Karajan had been conducting in concert some of Stravinsky’s tougher works, such as Apollon. But listen to these two conductors and their approaches to Stravinsky are not at all similar. The opening of Jansons Rite of Spring is actually rather promising: The bassoon does sound like a saxophone, and unlike many conductors Jansons manages to get his horn player to play his second note in unison with the bassoonist. But there is a difference between accuracy and blandness and you soon begin to find that where Stravinsky asks for staccato you end up with legato. The ‘Augurs of Spring’ is really about tempo, but it is also the first time we get an idea of how a conductor will frame their approach to rhythm in this work. The bowing of Levine’s MET Orchestra during the opening bars here is exceptional; it’s extremely defined and rather menacing, not like Jansons who opts for a more civilised, much less enigmatic approach – and the pizzicato playing at 0.23’ is as you would want to hear it; in the Levine recording. Jansons, on the other hand, is rather too flexible for my taste, neither gripping enough, nor particularly emphatic and the pizzicato is pretty much inaudible. That the crescendo at the end here should be overwhelming is because Levine has pretty much kept his tempo as it was at the beginning; Jansons has significantly slowed down and dented its impact.

The ‘Ritual of Abduction’ is the first time you notice in the Jansons Rite of Spring how indulgent some of the phrasing can be: whole bars are extended, notes are broadened, the tendency to control individual instrumental dynamics, particularly in the woodwind, stretches the timings as well as the musical effect. It will not be the last time you hear this. I struggled to understand why Jansons was being so cautious here – particularly when Levine and Dorati see this movement as an extension of the onslaught that has preceded it. He pulls back in ‘Spring Rounds’ too, much as Karajan used to do. The playing of the BRSO is just a little too cosy as well, disciplined, but also rather as if it’s been wrapped in cotton wool. I’m a little unsure about how Jansons conducts ‘The Sage – Dance of the Earth’ which serves as the climax to the first part of the Rite. There are conductors – Levine, Karajan (live), Kobayashi, Martinon and Stokowski – who generate considerable tension in this music. Martinon’s NHK suffer from playing that is all over the place (this was 1963!) but the others are able to sustain an accelerando and somehow manage to achieve phenomenal accuracy in the playing. Jansons manages the detail – but you really wonder if he’s noticed it’s all supposed to be a prestissimo.

The second part of the Jansons performance is exceptionally slow – and not just by the clock. Karajan, too, tended to conduct this part of the Rite of Spring slowly – even in his concert performances. It’s probably true that most conductors take the Introduction to this section more slowly than is necessary, and Jansons is no exception. Heavy on detail, densely expressive, ruinously inflexible with rubato, this is where Jansons sounds like an impressionist. ‘Mystic Circle’ sounds similar – and undramatic to boot. You really want this music to presage catastrophe (go to Levine for a sense of the cataclysm that is befall us).

And so to the ‘Sacrificial Dance’. It’s clear some conductors know how to approach this section – and others don’t, even down to its demanding tempo markings. Markevitch, and the Philharmonia Orchestra, set a standard here that is, I think, unequalled on disc. It’s not just that the playing is exceptional – it’s that Markevitch is going to take a risk. Karajan does this in both of his live performances as well – though with Karajan the ruthlessness of the tempo at the beginning is really a preface to a simply barbaric and seismic conclusion that crushes everything in its path. I don’t know a finer closing couple of pages to the Rite of Spring than the one Karajan gave in Salzburg in 1978. It’s overwhelming. Levine is demonstrably influenced by Karajan for his Rite, too, is powered by a crescendo of granitic force. Jansons is simply not in this class, and his orchestra plays without any kind of fire in its engine. Not only does Jansons set a tempo that is considerably slower than Stravinsky asks for – you don’t get much sense that the tempo is changing either. If Karajan and Levine both give us percussion playing that is hard, throbbing and resonant Jansons opts for something softer, diffident and muffled. And then we get what has to be the very worst part of this performance: Such a rhetorical display of phrasing on the flutes in the final bar it just sounds ostentatious.

I would also add, that the sound of this 2009 performance is not especially notable. Clarity is a bit occluded, meaning orchestral detail isn’t totally clear or focussed, and there is a sharp difference in the stereophonic warmth compared with the later recording of The Firebird.

The other performance on this disc, The Firebird, from a concert given in November 2016, is scarcely better – but it is an improvement. It’s apparent that slowness in Stravinsky need not be a problem – Giulini in a live performance of this work with the Berlin Philharmonic (in, I think, 1991) could be inexorable; but Giulini clearly loved this work, having conducted it for much of his career. Rather surprisingly, Kobayashi made his first recording of this piece only two years ago – with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, in what seems to have been a single recording session, and this too, is a highly dramatic, very beautifully conducted and played performance.

The same problems that marked the Jansons/BRSO Rite of Spring are less obviously present here. The conducting is less lifeless, the playing less dull; but it’s all rather joyless in a work that is disproportionately balletic in nature, and thematically celebrates concepts such as mortality and rebirth, captivity and freedom, the fantastical and the magical. It probably helps that the recording has greater presence and one notices this almost immediately from the wonderfully lugubrious opening of the ‘Introduction’ where strings have a richness to them. I’m even tempted to say that Jansons conducts an ‘Infernal Dance’ that is rhythmically taut and even exciting – there is even a certain ‘jazziness’ to the playing of the Bavarian orchestra here and one can’t fault the precision of much of the playing. Some of that peculiar phrasing that seems so indicative of a Jansons performance returns again – notably in the ‘Finale’ from 2’09 to 2’36 – (Kobayashi in the same section from 1’59 to 2’39 sounds significantly more ‘Stravinskian’).

I wrote at the beginning of this review that Jansons can be one of the dullest conductors on record. I think his Richard Strauss is quite exceptional – indeed, he’s one of the best Strauss conductors today so there are clear parts of the repertoire in which he excels. The flaws in this Stravinsky disc, however, are too many for me to give it any recommendation.

Marc Bridle


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