Why review another recording of Stravinsky’s great ballet score for the 1913 season of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)? Besides the fact that it’s a fabulous performance, it’s part of a disc that: 1) showcases one of our most renowned conductors, Riccardo Chailly, leading the superb Lucerne Festival Orchestra; 2) includes the world premiere recording of Stravinsky’s long-lost 11-minute Chant Funèbre, Op.5 (1908), a tribute to his late teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, which disappeared after its first performance at a memorial concert in St. Petersburg in 1909 and was only re-discovered in 2015; and 3) places Rite in the context of that early work and three that preceded it, thereby affording a long view of Stravinsky’s path to first bloom artistic maturity.
Let’s start with the undisputed masterpiece. I haven’t heard Chailly’s 1985 recording of Rite with the Cleveland Orchestra, but this new live one, recorded 30 years later, puts him at the head of the orchestra he now leads. His assumption as Lucerne’s Music Director seems fitting, in that the Lucerne Festival Orchestra’s members were hand-picked by the late Claudio Abbado, who also chose Chailly as his Assistant Conductor at La Scala in 1978, when Abbado was that opera house’s Chief Conductor. (To come full circle, Chailly is now the current Chief Conductor at La Scala.)
The recording finds Chailly and the orchestra in superb form. Of immediate note, at the work’s start, is the sensuous freedom Chailly draws from solo bassoonist Guilhaume Santana, and how that remarkable line sets the tone of the entire work. The playing from there on is extremely atmospheric and, in 24/96 files graciously supplied by David Chesky at HDTracks, notably three-dimensional. The orchestra may, save for big, explosive passages, remain curiously concentrated in the center of the soundstage, but when the music opens up, all space between and above my Alexia 2 loudspeakers became consumed with sound.
Chailly revels in the contrasts between sections of the ballet where Stravinsky indulges in the lush and sensual, and others where orchestra and dancers go wild. The frenzy starts early, in the third section « Jeu de rapt » (Mock abduction), and then transitions to the wonderful exoticism of « Rondes printanières » (Spring rounds). Stravinsky doesn’t allow us to settle in very long, however, before the orchestra sounds a cry of alarm, and the Games of the Rival Tribes begin. If you’d love to indulge in more than a bit of animalistic brutality, Stravinsky style, followed by huge helpings of frenetic intensity, you will love this recording.
Another highlight of Chailly’s response to Stravinsky’s fantasy depiction of a so-called « pagan » ritual sacrifice is the trance-like atmosphere he creates at the start of « Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes » (Mystic Circles of the Young Girls), and how seamlessly he transitions from there back to savagery. If percussion here and elsewhere does not quite match the strongest depiction of same in the hi-rez version of Seattle Symphony’s Rite under Ludovic Morlot, that may be because I suspect some engineering chicanery during Seattle’s mixing process. Regardless, Chailly still packs a major wallop. And there is so much more to this great work than how loud the kettle drum can get.
Chailly and Lucerne also excel in the creation of a translucent soundfield from which oft-submerged inner detail can emerge. This, in part, may be a natural byproduct of an orchestra that includes current and former members of major chamber ensemblesartists who understand the importance of inner lines. In the Evocation of the Ancestors and subsequent Ritual, for example, I hear inner details, contrasting and clashing polyrhythms, and colors that are not to be heard from Seattle’s Rite and many other recordings.
The concluding Sacrificial Dance is not only much faster than many on record; it is also far more rhythmically precise. The sharp jaggedness of the finale is thrilling beyond belief. Curiously, Chailly does not summon forth the final big solo bang, but instead subsumes that pound into an orchestral chord. Whether this has to do with different revisions of the scorethe liner notes do not sayI do not know. What I do know is that unless you must have the vaunted big pop, this Rite is an absolute keeper.
The recording is equally important for its four early works. Having heard a deeply moving live performance of the Chant funèbre in Seattle within the past year, I find Chailly’s rendition far more eerie and ominous in a science fiction/haunted house, film-score sense. (Check out the YouTube clip below to see what I mean.) Without question, the work’s chromaticism reflects a composer in transition to the much harsher and more revolutionary language he was soon to embrace (and then move on from).
After beginning the recording with the Funeral March, Chailly proceeds backwards in time to Feu d’artifice, Op.4 (Fireworks1908), Scherzo fantastique (1907), and the very early Le Faune et la Bergère (The Faun and the Shepherdess1906). With each step backwards, we hear more influence of the romantic composers who preceded Stravinsky. Mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch, recorded in her late ’40s, sounds far too mature for the shepherdess, and can no longer fully convey the light, flirty nature of her lines.
Regardless, to jump just five years from our sweet little faun and shepherdess to 1911, when Stravinsky began composing Le Sacre du Printemps, is to move from a crumbling old order of the late 19th century to a new world of constant clashes and changes. If members of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern) refused to march backwards, and instead more fully embraced the societal break-up that was underway, Stravinsky nonetheless paused to create some of the greatest, most colorful, and, at their premieres, most controversial balletic / orchestral spectacles of the early 20th century.
Which is another way of saying, this recording is more than a history lesson. It’s a thrilling journey, and highly recommended.