Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps - Bernstein
Dutton CDLX 7383
Classical - Orchestral
Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps*, Symphony of Psalms*/^
Judith Blegen**, soprano
The English Bach Festival Chorus^
London Symphony Orchestra*
New York Philharmonic Orchestra**
Leonard Bernstein, conductor
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Review by John Broggio - May 21, 2022
Nearly an unreserved recommendation.
Listeners in multichannel will either be alarmed or delighted (depending on their enjoyment of "aggressive" instrument placement) that the start of the Rite of Spring appears to be a conventional landscape of sound, with the opening woodwind coming from straight ahead. Such initial feelings are quickly reversed with the horns and percussion taking prominence rear left and the heavy brass rear right. The strings are also situated close to their woodwind colleagues - this comparatively restrained treatment by the then Sony/CBS engineering team is to be commended for it is simultaneously thought (ear) provoking without being overly distracting. The interpretation is wonderfully exciting throughout and the LSO play with real bite. After wonderfully incisive, deep percussion in Jeu du Rapt (3) and dramatically weighty double basses in the following Rondes Printanières (4), Bernstein strangely downplays those same instruments for the Cortège du Sage (6) before they are restored to their normal prominence in the Danse de la Terre (7). A direct comparison with Stravinsky: L'oiseau de feu, Le Sacre du printemps, Petrouchka - Rattle vividly illustrates how much the musical punch is apparently being pulled (perhaps the source tapes were more heavily worn in comparison to the rest and the clean them up "sanitised" the results). Fortunately, this is the only instance of such a strange phenomenon on the release and the second part is unremarkable from that perspective and fortunately cannot be extended to the musicianship of Bernstein and the LSO. The introduction to the second part is almost daringly expansive and generates an unusually high level of tension (of those accounts I have on SACD, Rattle's account on Rhythm Is It! - Soundtrack is the only one in the same ball park although he is noticeably quicker in his LSO account). This more expansive approach to the less "active" music serves to heighten the impact of the quicker, more musically violent sections which makes the contrasts as exciting as a nearly 50-year-old recording can convey. The sound is, the Cortège du Sage excepted, generally good and wears it's years lightly. There is a slight hint of brittleness in the loudest of accents in the upper woodwind and brass but nothing that can't be lived with given the wonderful musicianship. Indeed, if it weren't for that curious section in part one, this would be right up there with either of the Rattle accounts or Stravinsky: L'oiseau de feu, Le Sacre du printemps - Fischer for me; because of that section though, this should not be someone's only account of the Rite and I would recommend supplementing it with any or all of them.
Poulenc's Gloria was recorded in New York with Judith Blegen joining the Philharmonic and the Westminster Choir. This work has been very lucky on hi-res media for both Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé - Haitink and Poulenc: Gloria, Honegger: Symphony No. 3 - Jansons are fine interpretations. Of the two more modern accounts, Bernstein's general conception is closer to that of Haitink (Jansons is audibly more urgent in both the opening Gloria and the Domine Deus, Agnus Dei). In multichannel, the chorus is placed behind the listener, with a similar distribution of the somewhat smaller orchestral forces as in the Rite. This recording has aged extremely well indeed and very little allowance needs to be made for its age ("just" 46 years!) and allows Judith Blegen's radiant voice to come across with wonderful clarity. It is simply pure pleasure from start to finish.
Returning to close the disc with Stravinksy's Symphony of Psalms, Bernstein is back in London where he and the LSO are joined by the English Bach Festival Chorus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bernstein approaches this score in a very different style than Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms - Herreweghe! Here Bernstein is, like in parts of the Rite, daringly expansive - so expansive that Herreweghe's account is nearly 2 minutes swifter than the combined timings of the two longest movements (Expectans expectavi Dominum, Alleluia). And yet Bernstein and his musicians manage to carry the musical argument with a playing style that, while sharing similar levels of heft and bite as for Herreweghe, the additional space around each note or phrase lends a mystical quality to the performance and extra drama. Towards the conclusion of the work, the sustained upper woodwind passages are imaginatively turned into a quasi-organ by Herreweghe, whereas Bernstein sees them firmly as part of the whole orchestra. Both have their own virtues; the mystical atmosphere Bernstein's daringly slow tempi is marginally more convincing to these ears. In contrast to the Poulenc, the chorus is positioned in front of the listener here. Recorded one week after the Rite of Spring, the less extrovert scoring places fewer demands on the tapes and these are, like the Poulenc, in a very good state.
Overall, the recordings are good for their age, the one passage in the Rite of Spring aside. Musically, this disc has three highly stimulating interpretations of contrasting masterpieces; from this standpoint alone, very highly recommended but many will wish to have more modern accounts to luxuriate in sound that matches the musicianship.
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