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CD Review

Igor Stravinsky

  • Suite "The Firebird" (1919 Version)
  • The Rite of Spring
  • The Rite of Spring Concert Video
Orchestre National du Capitole Toulouse/Tugan Sokhiev
Video - Live performance from September 17, 2011 filmed by Jean-Pierre Losil
Naïve V5192 CD+DVD (55m + 37m)
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Ossetian-born conductor Tugan Sokhiev (b. 1977) leads a relatively understated performance of The Rite of Spring here. For the most part, the bigger moments in the 1919 Suite from The Firebird are also less potent, at least in decibels, than is customary. To many potential buyers, such descriptions would be a deterrent to seeking out these recordings. But both readings are very effective, or should I say all three readings are very effective. Actually, as indicated in the heading, there are two performances of The Rite of Spring, one on CD and the other, a live effort, on DVD. This album, by the way, was issued to mark the 100th anniversary of the work's premiere.

Sokhiev, the music director of the Orchestre National du Capitole Toulouse since 2008 and principal conductor of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin from 2012, made his early mark in opera, leading many major operatic productions from the early 1990s into the new century and serving as the music director of the Welsh National Opera in 2003-04. Here he leads a vital performance of The Firebird Suite, fashioned by the composer in 1919. He brings out much detail while favoring a more subtle approach, capturing the colorful character of Stravinsky's orchestration, its fantasy-like atmosphere and of course the Russian stylistic elements still a part of Stravinsky's expressive soul in 1910, when he wrote the ballet. The Infernal Dance of King Kastchei (track 5) is urgent and driven, but never over-the-top in sound, as in so many other performances. The Finale (7) features that famous closing theme, based on a Russian folk tune, which here is sweetly introduced by the horn, and then taken up by the orchestra to grow triumphant and celebratory. Again, where some conductors ratchet up the decibels, Sokhiev is subtle and wisely measured here. Overall, this is certainly one of the finest recordings of the 1919 Suite in recent times. There have been many splendid recordings of the work, including by Bernstein, Doráti and others. Of course there have also been various recorded renditions of the 1911 and 1945 Suites, as well as the complete 1910 ballet score. If you like the 1919 Suite, as I do, you will surely enjoy this splendid performance.

Fortunately, The Rite of Spring has no suite versions to sort through and is always heard in its complete form. In the 1970s this, along with Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, was the choice by major labels to market as the ultimate audiophile work. You could have blown your speakers on some of those recordings if you were a little reckless. There were then and still are numerous recordings of The Rite, and many of them (by Boulez, Solti, Muti, Ozawa, Salonen and others) are thrilling. But if there is a fault with so many recordings of The Rite, it is that tendency (and I don't want to beat the horse too dead) to crank up the decibels. Sokhiev's CD offers a powerful but never overstated performance, with energy and spirit and with details that emerge clearly: note the drive in Augurs of Spring (track 9), where the music doesn't pound but slashes crisply with a weighty menace; hear the infectious rhythmic bounce in Spring Rounds (12) or the deftly nasty character and breathless frenzy of Dance of the Earth (15). The Glorification of the Chosen One (18) is threatening but comparatively light on its feet in its rhythms and use of percussion. The concluding Sacrificial Dance (21), the one number that surely tempts conductors to go over the top, is tense and unwinds unsettlingly toward its crushing horrible conclusion, divulging along the way so much vivid detail of Stravinsky's orchestration, including that bold brass glissando at 2:58. A superb performance! By the way, this Toulouse ensemble is quite excellent, possibly the finest of French orchestras.

The live performance of The Rite is also quite fine and of course very similar in approach to the one on CD. The sound reproduction is excellent on both discs, and the video qualities on the DVD are first rate. I must mention that the discs are housed in a booklet of seventy pages, most containing imaginative illustrations by Sophie Chaussade depicting scenes from The Firebird and The Rite of Spring. All in all, an excellent offering from Naïve.

Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings