jueves, mayo 23, 2013

The centenary of a sacred scandal: this is the best ‘on-the-record’

¿Is there really anything like the perfect recording of an orchestral piece? Well, it depends on many things. In my opinion, the best way to answer that is by first finding out what you are looking for. Ideally, a good recording would pay loyalty to what the composer was aspiring to convey, but that’s quite hard to know. What’s rather more interesting, at least for me, is to explore various interpretations that will unequivocally lead to various experiences.

The act of listening to several performances is very exciting. The experience in itself will provide you with many rewards -and a few disappointments, let’s be honest. However, they will also help you to appreciate more the work you’re listening to, one that could even become a subject of study.

I’ve been listening to (and studying) several recordings of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps throughout the last three years. What I’m trying to achieve with this post is to come up with a selection of the best recordings, in my opinion, of this 20th century musical landmark. Propelled by my obsession with Stravinsky’s oeuvre, this collection has been the result of an exhilarating research that includes the reading of several books, articles posted in the internet and discussions among fans, and even conversations I’ve held during live performances of the piece.

I really hope this ends up encouraging you to immerse into Stravinsky’s terrific work. Here we go:

Igor Stravinsky and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra
(Sony, 1990) It is always great to hear a work exactly as the composer intended it to. This is the case with this recording. Stravinsky’s conducting abilities were quite limited, but he was particularly careful when it came to conducting his own works. The sonic quality isn’t the best, but there are some things in this register that you can’t find anywhere else. The way the strings sound, for example. They have a distinct tone, almost as if Stravinsky would have had in mind another whole instrument. His dynamics aren’t well controlled either, but there’s something in these imprecisions that instills allure to this version. Its flaws certainly make this recording unique, unlike any other.

Ernest Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
(Decca, 2002) Ansermet was a very close friend of Stravinsky. Additionally, the Swiss conductor was vital in introducing the Russian’s music to American audiences. Stravinsky was painfully selective when it came to approving the approach of a certain conductor on his works. Ansermet belonged to that elite. And this recording proves why. It’s warm, detailed and aggressive, embodying some sort of balance between the Russian (hectic) and the French (refined) readings. Thus, it has all the elements to be considered one of the finest registers of this great piece of music.

Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic
(Sony, 2013) Bernstein was a huge lover of Le sacre du printemps, and that devotion is materialized in this recording made in 1958. Stravinsky even mentioned this version in his autobiography (“Wow” was his verdict). According to many fans of the conductor, what makes this reading so compelling is the manifestation of Bernstein’s youth in all its splendor: there is energy, vitality and an impressive display of virtuosity by the members of the New York Philharmonic that can be read as a deliberate proof of fearlessness. The subsequent recordings that Bernstein made with other orchestras are doubtlessly shadowed by this first and excellent accomplishment.

Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra
(Deutsche Grammophon, 1997) Abbado’s prominent sense of finesse is present throughout this recording. His approach remarks the narrative essence of the piece -especially the dramatic elements. The outstanding string section of the London Symphony imbues the work with versatility, accentuating the raw passages while skillfully crafting the various moments of mystery that abound in the score. Stravinsky’s music enjoyed a close and warm link with British orchestras thanks to the affinity Les Ballets Russes’ held with that country. Under the extraordinary baton of Abbado, the London Symphony pays a great tribute to that relationship.

Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra
(Sony, 1995) This is widely considered by many critics as the best recording of Le sacre du printemps. Boulez makes clarity the norm. If you’re interested in knowing what role plays every single instrument in the score, this is exactly the recording you want to hear. This is Stravinsky à la française: elegant and refined. This same contradiction, according to many experts, is what makes it imperfect: how could a work so primitive sound so brilliant? Well, for me, that is precisely Boulez’s greatest achievement. The exceptional quality of this recording is what brings me back to it again and again, and it’s what makes it my personal favorite. I have always felt dazzled by Boulez’s take on the piece –that is until I find the next best thing.

Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra
(Philips, 2001) For many, this is the register that pays more loyalty to the crude and savage attributes of Le sacre du printemps. Gergiev definitely makes Stravinsky sound as Russian as ever: sharp strings, thick brasses and ferocious drums. However, in some instances this chaos becomes excessive (take for example the section Rondes printanières). Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra certainly exude vitality and excitement, but it does get overwhelming. Nonetheless, if you’re curious about hearing an orchestra at the edge of collapse, this is the recording for you. This version will definitely rock your world.

Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2006) From the perspective of sound quality, this is the best recording. It captures the exceptional acoustics of Walt Disney Hall, where it was recorded. Salonen’s approach is sensitively modern: the dissonances sound clear and the raw passages are accentuated, but with delicacy. My only complaint is represented by the unsettling prominence of the bass drum. In regards to control of the orchestra, this recording is perhaps second best to Boulez’s reading. Salonen’s hold on the many nuances of the ensemble is most eloquent in his astonishing handling of dynamics. This is definitely one of the greatest recordings edited recently.

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