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CD Review

Igor Stravinsky

The Rite of Spring

  • Centennial Re-Mastering
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
Sony Classical 8765-46915-2 34m
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Sony has remastered and reissued this popular 1958 account of The Rite of Spring to mark the 100th anniversary of the May 29, 1913 Paris premiere of the work. In May I reviewed the Tugan Sokhiev issue on Naïve V5192, which featured a studio performance of the work on CD as well as a live concert recording on DVD. Both performances, as well as the account of The Firebird, which was paired with The Rite on the CD, were excellent. And there have been many other fine recordings of The Rite over the years by such conductors as Abbado, Boulez, Leinsdorf, Muti, Skrowaczewski, and Solti, to name just a handful. There were two further recordings by Bernstein as well, with the London Symphony Orchestra (1972) and the Israel Philharmonic (1982). You can currently find over 200 listings of The Rite on CD and DVD, most probably pretty effective efforts. But this initial one by Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra just might top them all.

This performance is atmospheric, powerful, thrilling, brimming with detail and classic in every sense of the word. Some may charge that it is over-the-top in its relentless fierceness and sonic ferocity, but even its detractors – few as they surely are – will have to concede the performance is one of the most committed and aurally outstanding of its time. Indeed, for a 1958 recording the sound is unbelievably detailed in all ranges of the aural spectrum. About the only section of the piece that one might be able to dredge up any significant criticism is the Introduction, where the bassoon playing sounds a tad uneven. But that might be a case of nitpicking as the music here is effective and brimming with dark atmosphere and a sense of foreboding. Thereafter you are hard pressed to find any fault: The Augurs of Spring (track 2) and Ritual of Abduction (3) feature insistent weighty rhythms, in-your-face brass proclamations, and utterly savage percussion. Spring Rounds (4) is dark and brimming with tension before it erupts with primitive ferocity in its latter half, where again the percussion comes on with crushing power. Ritual of the Rival Tribes (5) is hearty and rhythmic, full of spirit as the orchestral players seem to relish the unremitting savagery. In that same violent vein is the brief Dance of the Earth (8): I don't think I have ever heard a more desperate, more breathless, and more frenzied performance of this music.

The second half of the ballet is just as convincing. The Glorification of the Chosen One (11) is wanton in its power and crushing force, while The Evocation of the Ancestors (12) is relatively subdued – appropriately so; and Ritual of the Ancestors (13) builds to an utterly powerful climax. The Sacrificial Dance (14) never sounded so chilling, so powerful and so brutal. If anyone would suggest this is the greatest recording of this work ever made, I would be reluctant to challenge the claim. This is an awesome performance is every respect. This album, by the way, features the same cover and label artwork appearing on the original LP issue, and also offers copious notes by Jonathan Cott on the work's premiere and this 1958 recording. Highest recommendations!

Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings