When the ‘Rite of Spring’ was first performed in Paris in May 1913, there were boos after the first few bars of the Bassoon solo, degenerating into public arguments in the subsequent bars and by the end of the work, there were fist fights in the isles – the police were called and Diaghilev, the Ballet company’s promoter repeatedly turned the lights on and off in an attempt to restore order. Stravinsky left the theatre crying, and so the twentieth Century’s most controversial piece was born…
While this work changed the course of musical history, it took years for Stravinsky’s language to achieve universal acceptance. It is now considered a classic. The work is about a sacrifice of a virgin in Pagan Russia; it’s a ballet in two distinct parts, the first section being The Adoration of The Earth and the second entitled The Sacrifice where a young girl dances herself to death. One of the reasons that the work inspired such anger, I believe is the musical language of discord Stravinsky uses. There is virtually no use of the language of previous centuries (i.e. classical beauty and symmetry), but instead brutal harmonic clashes and driving rhythms in highly irregular sequences give the work a dazzling sense of timelessness (some of the tunes were supposedly from Lithuanian Folk Music).
This recording (Columbia MS-6319) was made by the composer with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in 1961. The sessions were not plain sailing. There were many corners which Stravinsky couldn’t precisely fix, and this was left to his sidekick Robert Craft to patch up later. The striking thing about it at a technical level, is the openness of soundstage the listener experiences. Spatially, every instrument can be precisely located; there is a weight to the string sound that gives a depth of field not found on Rattle’s EMI recording made in 1989. The latter feels like listening through a tunnel in contrast of the openness of Stravinsky’s interpretation. Although the recording is a tad dry, the sheer detail creates the force of over a hundred musicians onstage and brings the complexity of the score to life.
There’s something else that makes this recording so extraordinary. It was conceived as a ballet, with a sense of continuous narrative, and I really sense in Stravinsky’s hands, the drive to tell the story from the first note till the last chord. There are no “quick wins”, or sound bites found in other interpretations, just the inevitable momentum of the gruesome story. Stravinsky was not considered to be a great conductor. There were people around in 1961 that had a greater command of conducting technique than he, but the sense of spring and rhythm he brings to this recording is exceptional. The ping-pong rhythms in the last section feel as springy as rubber, which creates the immense sense of excitement of the final dance.
There is also a sense in which Stravinsky is not making points with the score in a way so many conductors do, he doesn’t overplay the Rondes Printanières, but lets the music develop organically, which could be so easily vulgarised. In contrasting this with Rattle’s recording made twenty eight years later on CD, the latter’s dynamic range is not as good, the clarity of the score is wanting, and the rhythmic precision is sloppier. There is less sense of the ballet’s story and the recording is altogether less involving.
The Columbia engineers have placed the listener in the first few rows of the hall, with some discrete spot-miking on the solo instruments to enhance the clarity of the musical line. In contrast, the Rattle recording has less difference in this respect, and the spotlight on individual contributions are less bright. The Stravinsky recording is very much like a master tape, there has been precious little processing and the sound is detailed, honest and raw. The Rattle recording may have a more pleasing veneer, but some of the complexity of sound has been lost in the mastering process.
All in all then, this recording offers an historic insight into Stravinsky’s conception of this seminal work, and is recorded with an integrity and truthfulness which make it truly a classic. Lovers of classical music would do well to make a point of seeking out an original pressing of this on vinyl. RT