A debt has been paid. In 1938, cartoon mogul Walt Disney approached Igor Stravinsky and offered to pay to use the composer’s famous ballet ‘The Rite of Spring’ (“Le Sacre du Printemps” in its original French title) in his animated film ‘Fantasia’. Before Stravinsky could dismiss the idea outright, Disney quickly pointed out that the actual score – originally published in Russia – was not covered by United States copyright laws. In other words, take a token payment and smile or else I’ll use it anyway and pay you nothing. Stravinsky smiled through gritted teeth and took the token payment. He couldn’t even maintain the smile when Disney and conductor Leopold Stokowski cut the piece down to less than half its original size and paired it up with cartoon images of dinosaurs. But he had little choice. So Stravinsky devoted himself to putting out revised versions of the orchestrations of his early ballets so that the new versions would be under copyright. Now, almost seventy years later, Disney’s debt is being repaid in handsome manner. The first recording to come out of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s brand-new Walt Disney Concert Hall features a performance of the ‘Rite’ for the twenty-first century, complete in its revised orchestration, with nary a dinosaur in sight. This disc also marks Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft’s welcome return to releasing classical multichannel Super Audio Compact Discs after a hiatus when they appeared to give up on the format. Let us hope that this release signifies DGG’s acknowledgement that a solid niche market has developed for high-resolution multichannel sound, despite all the gloom ‘n’ doom predictions which were rife a couple of years ago.
Stravinsky’s ‘Rite’ has had no shortage of great performances over the years, but I have been searching for the last decade or so for a recording to properly ring in the twenty-first century. Its first performance in 1913 infamously degenerated into a riot, but now the work has become so well-known and often-played that it only shocks in the finest performances. For many years, Pierre Boulez was regarded as the last word in modernity in the ‘Rite’, but his (non-) interpretation is beginning to look more and more like a relic of the twentieth century, that age of logic and belief in scientific determinism. Boulez’s approach is a brilliant analysis of the work that completely divorces it from its neo-primitive, quasi-pagan roots. Indeed, the elderly Stravinsky might well have appreciated such a classical approach. But the young Stravinsky who wrote this wild ballet about pagan worship culminating in human sacrifice was of the same generation as musical folklorists such as Bartok and Vaughan Williams. There is an earthy quality that can be found in the music by those who look beyond the confines of the written notes on the page. I had great hopes in finding a new, earthier view when Valery Gergiev’s Philips recording was released a few years back, but it proved to be so self-consciously theatrical and mannered that it created its own cul-de-sac of exaggeration. He left no room to go further in that direction yet still remain faithful to Stravinsky. But now the energetic Estonian conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen blazes a new trail into the twenty-first century by combining the brilliant analysis of the old-fashioned style with a more personal and intense emotional commitment. And he does so with Stravinsky’s details clearly in mind.
Of older recordings, I’m fond of Antal Dorati’s early digital romp with the Detroit Symphony on Decca. It stands as an early precursor to Salonen’s approach, though without quite the same incisive sense of detail. There was also a BBC Music Magazine release of a live Proms concert by David Atherton and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales which packed a similar wallop within a focused framework. Roaming a little further afield, Leonard Bernstein’s last recording of the work, with the Israel Philharmonic on DGG, isn’t refined, but it has the sort of intensity that makes the piece burn, even if the strains of Bernstein’s theatricality often show. And though I find them overly efficient, all three Boulez recordings are lucid analyses which remain mandatory listening. Or at least one of them does… Boulez is so consistent in approach, if you’ve heard one of them, you’ve pretty much heard them all. Also mandatory are Stravinsky’s own recordings. He wasn’t particularly gifted as a conductor, but he makes some interesting points. His Columbia stereo recording is the most easily available, and it keeps the ‘Rite’ poised and fleet of foot. The problem, however, is that it also lacks the powerful punch for which the score seems to call, perhaps a result of the elderly Stravinsky’s unease with the demands of his boisterous youth. At any rate, his earlier monophonic New York Philharmonic recording packs more of a punch, even if the playing accuracy leaves something to be desired.
Salonen’s speeds are fleet in the first half, though he balances poise with power. Important, too, to the ultimate impact of the whole piece is that he doesn’t let his players overshoot. For instance, the trombone and trumpet interjections in the “Spring Rounds” section are often used as an excuse to blow the roof off the building, but Salonen rightly notices that they are marked ff in the score, meaning “extremely loud” but not “as loud as possible,” which would be the fff marking which he saves for later. Salonen also notices that for the final note of the first half, only some of the instruments cut off abruptly with eighth notes, whereas the brass and woodwinds close with quarter notes, a barbaric yawp that is not evident in most performances. Yet all of these details are subsumed into a pulse-pounding forward drive that makes Gergiev’s gestures in his rival recording look like grandstanding.
Especially felicitous is that Salonen knows how to dramatically shape the work without stooping to moustache-twirling theatrics. He correctly diagnoses that the final “Sacrificial Dance” at the end of the second half, only matches the ending of the first half if there is an equal or greater output of energy. But Stravinsky doesn’t heap up as much sheer decibel level in the final dance as at the end of the first part, so what is a conductor to do? One could follow Gergiev’s route and slow the dance down, trying to strong-arm greater weight out of it. Gergiev closes with an absurdly slowed-down dramatic pause before the final upbeat riff and closing chord, which are again played in slow motion. It sounds perfectly ridiculous and is too self-conscious a gesture to work. Stravinsky himself knew the correct answer to this conundrum: The “Sacrificial Dance” was designed to stun the listener through manic, unpredictable change. The meter changes with almost every bar, and the tempo is blistering… or at least it was blistering. Stravinsky’s early piano roll hints that he wanted an inhumanly fast pace for the final dance. Knowing that players would have trouble with it, he noted a slightly slower pace in the published score. Discovering that players still couldn’t handle that (nor he himself as conductor), Stravinsky conducted it another notch slower in concert. In his final recording, it is another degree slower yet, though still faster than most other recordings. But Esa-Pekka Salonen has seen the light: He sees that the input of energy from a manic tempo with daredevil playing is what it takes to make the end the high point. His Los Angeles Philharmonic players polish the dance off in 4:24 (compared to Stravinsky at 4:35 and Gergiev at over five minutes), and they do it with sparks flying. But the original piano roll’s pace has yet to be matched: 4:07. It will be fun to see who – if anyone – rises to the challenge in the future.
Salonen’s ‘Rite’ is reason enough to recommend the disc, but there are two more pieces on the disc as well. Most welcome is the disc opener, the original version of ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ by Mussorgsky. The work is wildly creative and mercifully free of the tedious “dawn” which Rimsky-Korsakov added when he toned-down and tidied-up the tone poem for popular consumption during the Victorian era. Mussorgsky’s unrefined genius runs amok, splashing bright and garish colors with the intensity of a Van Gogh painting. In addition to being darker and stranger than Rimsky’s bowdlerization, it also has a greater range in the other direction, even displaying moments of humor and wit reminiscent of similar passages in the same composer’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. Salonen’s new recording is fast and furious, taking pride of place over previous recordings such as the serviceable Abbado recording with the London Symphony on RCA from the 1970’s, and the gleaming but cool performance by Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra on Teldec in the 1980’s. Only the very end seems to underwhelm, which is at least partly a function of the scoring, though if the orchestra stayed after the concert to redo the end to leave it free of applause, the players may well have been exhausted.
Last, but least, this disc also includes the concert version of Bela Bartok’s ballet ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’. After years of trying, I still haven’t mustered any great enthusiasm for this work. I can only say that I prefer the concert suite because it is ten minutes shorter than the complete ballet. It was one of those works written in the wake of ‘The Rite of Spring’, where various composers attempted to out-Stravinsky Stravinsky by being wilder, more savage, louder, etc. Frankly, most of these pieces are pretty insufferable, and ‘Mandarin’ is a headache-maker up there with the best of them. Sure, it has some neat passages (okay, that barbaric organ pedal half-step obstinate near the beginning is genius), and Salonen and company perform the hell out of them, but wouldn’t it have made for a more listenable disc to have some contrast? I mean, sure, I can see the “theme” of the disc: ‘Night’ led to the ‘Rite’, which led to the ‘Mandarin’. But if you listen to it all back-to-back, it is rather relentless. It would have been better to drop a more lyrical piece in between ‘Night’ and ‘Rite’, making for a disc one would be eager to listen to all the way through in one sitting.
This disc is billed as the first DGG release from the new Disney Hall in Los Angeles. Actually, due to production differences, it follows on the heels of DGG’s download-only release of Salonen and the LAPO doing Beethoven’s ‘Symphony No. 7’ and ‘Symphony No. 8’, recorded about two months after the present disc (and available at the Deutsche Grammophon branch of the Universal Classics website). The two recordings give us a chance to explore the sound of the new hall, but only to a degree. The first impression is that the hall has a sound both atmospheric and gleaming, though that would well describe the sound Salonen always achieves from his orchestras. The hall seems to suit the large-orchestra frills of the modern pieces best, remaining a touch monochrome in the Beethoven. If there is a minor problem area, it would seem to be in the mid-range, which is a touch dry, but then again these are billed as live recordings, and the presence of sound-sucking audience members can parch the mid-range. The Beethoven sounds more like a straight live take, whereas the SACD exposes hardly an extraneous sound anywhere, suggesting that many edits may have been used from patch-up sessions after the concert. That might also have something to do with the way that the hall’s bounceback in the surround channels is inconsistent. In some places, a definite bounceback can be heard. In others where one might expect a little bounceback, there is virtually none. This could be due to the presence of audience members in the live edits, and an empty, ringing hall in the patch-ups.
An additional influence on the sound of the surround channels is DGG’s application of multiple microphones. This has been a long-standing feature of their recordings, and I don’t suppose it is likely to change any time soon. But by stitching together feeds from a boatload of different microphones placed in different locations on stage and in the hall, DGG is missing the potential for high-resolution, multichannel recording to create astonishingly realistic depth perspectives. No true perspective ever emerges here, because the point-of-view is constantly changing. One moment, the viola section is playing. The next moment, a clarinet is playing, and it sounds closer and bigger than the whole viola section did. It is wonderful to see DGG returning to SACD, and even more wonderful to see them embracing DSD recording technology, but it is a shame for them not to make the most out of it by playing to the technology’s strengths. That said, this is still an impressively clear and impactful recording. The DSD recording captures intense and vivid textures, such as the gong arcs in the “Dance of the Earth” which cut like scythes over the orchestral hubbub and fly out to the surround channels. The overall level is a tad low, but playing it at a healthy level gives an impressive dynamic range. The redbook CD layer of this hybrid release holds its own against any other DGG recording, and the stereo SACD layer gives great impact without the concern of how the surrounds sound. Thus, in the end, despite my misgivings about the mike-heavy recording and mixing, I feel compelled to give this disc a 90% sound rating.
I am pleased to give this a strong recommendation. DGG could have made the sound a little truer, thus giving us a better impression of the true sound of Los Angeles’ new Walt Disney Concert Hall, but it is still pretty impressive. Most importantly, though, Salonen’s performance of the ‘Rite’ is the best new performance in almost twenty-five years, and takes its place among the finest.