I once thought (wrongly, as it turned out) that basically all versions of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring sounded pretty much the same. Stravinsky had finally done something that all other composers could only dream of: he'd created a piece of music that was conductor-proof. Of course, this didn't begin to explain why that final chord sounds differently in every version of the piece I know, or indeed why I had somehow accumulated twenty recordings of it over many years of collecting.
I welcomed the task of reviewing Ivan Fischer's
new Rite of Spring because it
presented the opportunity to further explore this issue: to what degree were
versions of the music similar or different; and if these were different, well
then, how and in what particular ways different? So I (perhaps foolishly) vowed
to listen to every recording (CD or vinyl) I could get my hands on, including
all twenty that I already owned. Ah, what we reviewers won't do for you
The results were surprising. In fact recordings of the music fall into three distinct categories. First, there are conductors who present the score as written, trusting to the notes on the page, and scrupulously avoiding any exaggeration or false dramatic emphasis. For these conductors, the music speaks for itself; its power doesn't rest in any single episode, but builds gradually, cumulatively, to its overwhelming climax. Recordings like this tend to be rhythmically concise and steady, flowing evenly throughout the piece.
Then there are conductors who believe that shock
and awe are absolutely essential to this music. The first performance of the
work (in 1913) provoked a riot, and changed the course of music forever.
Therefore modern listeners should be able to directly experience the abrasive
dissonance, abrupt shifts of mood, and complex driving rhythms that so unsettled
its first listeners. Performances of this sort tend to be brilliant, virtuosic,
flamboyant; very much in your face. These also provide audiophiles the kind of
sonic boom they secretly crave.
I once complimented a Chicago Symphony musician
after a Rite of Spring he'd just
performed with Pierre Boulez at the helm. I marveled at just how precisely the
orchestra had played this difficult music. My friend shrugged off the
compliment. These days, he said, the score presents none of challenges it did
when it was still relatively new. Orchestras can now play it as easily, readily
as a symphony by Brahms or Beethoven. Well, if that's the case, then it
follows that interpretations of the music can be as different, as varied as more
I use this anecdote to introduce the third category: performances in which the conductor takes an entirely individual approach to the music that avoids both literalism and flamboyance. In this instance, conductors tend to emphasize the expressionism of the score, its orphic, surreal possibilities. Or they'll pay more attention to the scenario, its narrative arc and folkloric origins. Sometimes conductors will radically slow the tempos to explore a kind of lyricism that most others would argue just isn't there. I'm thinking here of Sir Rattle's enervating, vey non-flamboyant sleep-over (a performance to be avoided at all costs). This category also permits of polar opposites: Bernstein's fever dream with the New York Philharmonic at one extreme, Ansermet's austere sound track for a Greek tragedy at the other.
Each of these categories has produced memorable performances. If you're interested in a direct presentation of the score, I'd recommend either recording by Pierre Boulez (the later Cleveland version is better played, the earlier ORTF more exciting), Pierre Monteux with the Boston Symphony in excellent mono (Monteux has a claim to authenticity having led that legendary premiere), Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw (mostly for the playing of that great orchestra), and of course, Stravinsky himself with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. If you're in the market for a Rite that will singe your eyebrows and rupture your eardrums (and tweeters), then I'd go with Riccardo Muti's fiery performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Antal Dorati's jet-propelled Minneapolis bacchanal, and Igor Markevitch's later stereo version with the Philharmonia. If you're looking for a more personal take on the music, I'd ask you to consider Michael Tilson Thomas's account with the Boston Symphony (made at the very beginning of his career) or Riccardo Chially's operatic version with the Cleveland (also, by the way, the best sounding recording I know). In this third category, you'll also find my favorite: Valery Gergiev's impulsive, apocalyptic performance with the Mravinsky Orchestra. Gergiev balances poetry and violence; a dream-like atmosphere and a relentless sense of inevitability. If you're not interested in accumulating twenty or more versions of the score, this is definitely the one to have. It's truly astonishing.
It should come as no surprise that Ivan Fischer's new account belongs in the third category. Fischer approaches every piece of music he performs with a decidedly single-minded point-of-view, and he has thus far in his career managed to charge the most familiar scores with an inspirational freshness and imaginativeness that makes them sound newly minted. His older recordings of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, Miraculous Mandarin, and his more recent ones of the Brahms First Symphony, Beethoven's Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies, and Schubert's "Great" C-major all serve as examples of his transformative magic.
That said, I was disappointed by the recording at hand. Certainly the "Adoration of the Earth" opens with a sense of purpose, and the "Dances of the Young Girls" and the "Game of Abduction" are atmospheric, rhythmically incisive, and well characterized. But trouble begins with the "Spring Rounds" section, which is taken at an unusually slow tempo that needlessly drags. Performances of the Rite (whatever kind of performance they happen to be) must maintain a consistent, flowing pulse that unifies the sudden shifts in tone and mood. Unfortunately, the conductor spends so much effort shaping the individual scenes that the music soon becomes fragmented, episodic. In this regard, "The Sacrifice" is especially uneven. Fischer cannot sustain, let alone build the tension to the final "Sacrificial Dance," which sounds a little anti-climatic. There are head-turning moments here to be sure, demonstration-quality SACD sound, a sense of transparency and attention to detail, but overall this performance never really comes together. Given this, I'm not sure the fillers will factor in anyone's decision to purchase the disc. There are many excellent performances of the Firebird Suite (my current favorite is the Giulini/Chicago Symphony), and here is yet another. In this instance, Fischer holds his own against the competition, and the playing of his remarkable orchestra is thrilling from first to last. The two shorter pieces are also well done. But given the unavoidable problems with the Rite of Spring, it's difficult to recommend this disc to anyone but Fischer die-hards. And even they, I suspect, will be disappointed by what they hear.