Stravinsky
The Rite of Spring
Scriabin
The Poem of Ecstasy

Kirov Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev

PHILIPS 468 035-2
[55’22”]
Stravinsky
The Rite of Spring
Debussy
La mer
Boulez
Notation VII

Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim

TELDEC 8573-81702-2
[66’40”]
CD No: PHILIPS 468 035-2; TELDEC 8573-81702-2
Duration:
Reviewed: December 2001
Neither new Rite can be considered a top-of-the-pile recommendation, although Barenboim’s becomes more impressive with each listen.
Conversely, Gergiev’s gets worse. While ritual is suggested, he has no feel for dance. The Rite is a ballet after all, although it is now an orchestral showpiece, its origins ever-more obscure to many of today’s conductors (and listeners!), Gergiev included. His primary-colour, visceral-with-a-vengeance approach lacks Barenboim’s sense of movement, both physical and suggested; Barenboim’s rendition is altogether more choreographic-conscious.
What rules Gergiev out is his “wham, bham, thank you ma’am” impersonation – insistent, overblown, with little or no concern for internal balance; worse, the lack of accurate ensemble sabotages Stravinsky’s precision of notation. Recorded in 1999, in Baden-Baden (Michael Gielen territory; now, a Rite from him…), Gergiev’s faults are many.
Between 0’51”-1’00” there are coughs: is this a live performance, are the players not concentrating, is producer Stan Taal not listening or concerned? The gathering of woodwinds from 1’02” is uncoordinated and poorly balanced; an oboe melody from 1’31” is lost before its close, covered by incidental detail; the blur of sound here an unfortunate presage of later misjudgements.
Too often details are forced and obliterate more important ideas – track 3, from 0’13”, the virtual inaudibility of the horns, lost to over-prominent ’baa-ing’ trumpets. In ’Spring Rounds’ (track 4), elephantine double basses sound grotesque, the music’s progression wretchedly protracted. From 2’21” ugly trombone glissandos repel; from 2’51” another blur, then more percussion attacks – a partial and obvious realisation of the text. And so on.
This is a fast, loud, strained, superficial and, actually, rather anonymous performance; it has spectacular sound but only for the big gesture – not if you want credible balances and myriad detail; middle frequencies coagulate above forte. There’s also a suspicion of balance rigging and changes of perspective manipulated from the control room – track 11, 0’02”-0’04”, the bass drum is so backward that its important rhythm is forfeited; the horns rush ahead here too. Part 2’s ’Introduction’ and ’Mystic circles’ is cloying and mawkish … and, of course, the eleven double-timpani strokes heralding ’Glorification of the chosen one’ are banged out. It had to be.
The first, and only, textural revelation (and, comparing with Barenboim, there’s now a conundrum regarding the first and second violin parts; I’ve no score to hand) is the eerie string exchanges in ’Ritual action’ (track 13), 1’31”-1’50”, which is soon negated by horns overriding wind and trumpet trills from 2’34”. Gergiev’s love of theatrics misfires: his tendency for pauses, devoid of pregnancy, are merely ’hollows’ – the one inserted at the start of ’Danse sacrale’ (track 14, 0’01”) compromises its rhythmic profile; note further changes of perspective at 1’10” and 4’16”.
Gergiev’s ’Danse sacrale’ hardly conjures a dance of death – do though picture a reviewer scratching the wall at the sheer inadequacy of it all. Not sure about the trumpets’ pitch, 3’53”-3’57”. The extended fermata that delays the (ragged!) final chord is contrived, fails, and will be tiresome on repetition.
This ill-conceived, crude, forced, one-dimensional Rite is as irritating as it is predictable – eventually it becomes boring. Barenboim, just two tracks for his Rite, enjoys cleaner and more focussed sound, and he has a subtlety of means foreign to Gergiev. The oboe line, 1’33”-1’40”, can be heard in its entirety – although revisiting Ansermet (as part of Decca’s very important, just-available 8-CD Stravinsky set; review in preparation) is to know a higher level of perception. If Barenboim can be too contained, at least his Rite has rhythmic variety, a sense of inner momentum, and balance is excellent. His opening minutes of Part 2 mark over Gergiev’s for atmosphere; pianissimo trumpets more tellingly distant. Overall, Barenboim invests more colour and timbral contrast.
As for recorded Rites generally, the composer’s final one (Sony) isn’t the full story by any means, a useful reference of course. Then there’s Craft (Musicmasters and Koch), Karajan (DG), Boulez (Sony and DG), Slatkin (RCA), Markevich (Testament), Monteux, another reference as The Rite’s first conductor (RCA and Decca), Bernstein (Israel PO/DG) and others all have claims. So too Barenboim.
Gergiev’s Scriabin is very much better; indeed I find it compelling, discriminating and convulsive, its orgasmic trajectory charted with control, impressive playing and a musical focus sadly lacking in Stravinsky.
Initially, La mer is given an attractive Impressionistic reading, fluid and delicate, Barenboim’s use of antiphonal violins ear-tweaking as is his concern for detail and transparency; his symphonic concern equally noteworthy. His unindulgence though comes to grief with the first movement’s cello melody, from 4’41”, which is rather thrown away. Thereafter efficiency and atmosphere vie for attention, Barenboim at his best in more reflective passages.
Some transitions are sticky – from 3’24” in ’Play of the waves’ (this passage should have been re-taken); following, he’s too careful and at 4’34” spurts forward. These inorganic inconsistencies and a lack of tension suggest a final rehearsal rather than the real thing. The finale does gather momentum yet a feeling of regularity creeps in despite Barenboim’s care with dynamics and blend. From 6’43”-6’49” the woodwinds’ rhythmic bounce is infectious; the second violins’ slides, 6’59”-7’02”, syrupy.
Barenboim doesn’t play the ad-lib brass fanfares – taken out by Debussy, restored by Ansermet – between (here) 7’08”-7’21”; you hear them in the mind anyway.
Pierre Boulez’s on-going orchestral re-working of his 1945 piano Notations are slowly blossoming into a work of true substance – may he complete all twelve and a definitive recording. Meanwhile VII is the longest so far, Bergian in harmony and scoring with a distinctly French subtlety of tone, textural shimmer, expressive fluidity, and wondrously beautiful string lines – flawlessly realised by Boulez’s fantastic ear for sound. I can imagine a more translucent version than Barenboim’s but still worth the CD.

 

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