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Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Poulenc: Les Biches / Fischer, BBC NO of Wales

Stravinsky / Bbc National Orch / Fischer
Release Date: 06/28/2011 
Label:  Signum Classics   Catalog #: 205   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Igor StravinskyFrancis Poulenc
Conductor:  Thierry Fischer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Two very different Diaghilev ballets in excellent performances. 3543970.az_STRAVINSKY_Le_Sacre_POULENC.html

STRAVINSKY Le Sacre du printemps. POULENC Les Biches Thierry Fischer, cond; BBC Nat’l O Wales; BBC Nat’l Ch Wales SIGNUM 205 (67:48)

It was 1959. My LP collection was growing, and I’d begun exploring what was then, for me, the outer limit Read more of the classical repertoire. I’d read about Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the infamous riot that attended its premiere in Paris in 1913. Curious to know what all the fuss was about, I brought home my very first recording of the work in a 1958 performance by Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic. To this day, I still remember my mother’s reaction to hearing the piece coming from my tabletop console record player. “You must be keeping the record companies in business,” she shouted over the din of the dueling dinosaurs (compliments of Walt Disney), “because only you would buy such a thing.”

Many years and at least 20 or so Rites later, what never ceases to amaze me every time I encounter a new recording of the piece is the power it still has to shock. And because of its massive orchestral forces and complexities of its rhythmic and instrumental interactions, you would think it would be a work tailor-made for multichannel SACD technology, of which a number of recent recordings have taken advantage. Yet four such versions—Esa-Pekka Salonen’s with the L.A. Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon, Jonathan Nott’s with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra on Tudor, Mariss Jansons’s with the Concertgebouw on the orchestra’s own RCO label, and Andrew Litton’s with the Bergen Philharmonic on BIS—were found wanting by James H. North, who reviewed them in past issues. The only multichannel SACD version that got a thumbs-up was Jaap van Zweden’s with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic on Exton in a review by Arthur Lintgen in Fanfare 34:3.

Given that the three so-so reviews were written by the same critic, one might conclude that North is especially hard to please. But I rather tend to agree with an observation made by ClassicsToday and onetime Fanfare contributor David Hurwitz, who noted that a lot of basic repertoire is being recorded merely to take advantage of SACD multichannel technology, often with no justification either interpretively or sonically. Stating it a little differently, I would say that advances in recording technology are no more capable today than they were 50 years ago of improving upon a lackluster performance. In fact, technology can be the enemy of mediocrity, exposing faults and flaws that might previously have gone unnoticed.

The Rite at hand is not a multichannel recording, and it doesn’t have to be for us to appreciate that Thierry Fischer and his Welsh BBC forces have every note and nuance of Stravinsky’s score down pat. The recording itself is deeply resonant and has a dynamic range and frequency response wide enough to give the timpani and bass drum thwacks visceral impact, while making clearly audible the softest solos in the bass clarinet and contrabassoon.

That being said, this is not one of the more primitive, raw-sounding, red-meat Rites on record. If anything, it’s a reading marked by its refinement. Fischer never loses sight of the fact that this is music written to be danced to, and the balletic character is always present in his interpretation of the score. Never mind that the ballet’s choreography tells a story of pagan human sacrifice in a ritual to appease the god of fertility; Fischer doesn’t deny the bloodletting but makes it secondary in a Rite that has an almost lyrical grace to it and that plays with the sensuous beauty of the late 19th-century Russian school that was such a strong influence on Stravinsky in his early ballets.

In a 33:6 review of a live 1952 Rite led by Igor Markevitch, I described his reading with the RIAS Orchestra as bracing and determinedly defiant. “In his hands,” I observed, “the composer’s score is not one for the lithe, acrobatically inclined danseur, but for the toned, hard-bodied gymnast. For Markevitch, it’s all about the interplay of complex, unyielding rhythms and sudden, explosive gamma ray bursts.” For those inclined to a Rite that’s like “a Molotov cocktail lobbed through a plate glass window,” Markevitch fills the bill, underscoring the point that a hair-raising performance is not about the recording technology. There are, of course, plenty of more recent, modern recordings, though not necessarily in multichannel SACD format, that deliver quite a jolt, one of my favorites being Antal Doráti’s 1982 Decca/London version with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. But if you’re looking for a Rite a bit less barbaric and a bit more civil, Fischer’s new Signum CD is beautifully done.

Poulenc’s Les Biches makes a logical discmate for the Stravinsky in more ways than one. First, it too was commissioned by the Gertrude Stein of ballet, Sergei Diaghilev. Just as Stein had the prescience to buy up paintings by Picasso and other little-known artists of the time, Diaghilev sought out young composers who had yet to become famous for his Ballets Russes productions. Poulenc was 25 in 1924 when Diaghilev approached him to write a piece based on Glazunov’s Les Sylphides.

Poulenc accepted the commission but had his own ideas for a subject, paintings by Watteau that depicted Louis XV in poses with various women in his Parc aux biches . The word, by the way, does not refer to female dogs, which might have been appropriate given the context of Poulenc’s score, which he described as “a contemporary drawing-room party suffused with an atmosphere of wantonness, which you sense if you are corrupted, but of which an innocent-minded girl would not be conscious.” Biche actually translates as hind or female deer.

Diaghilev’s ballet choreographed to music by Poulenc was enormously successful, appreciated by public and critics alike. It’s written in the “antique” divertissment style intended to recall 18th-century composers such as Scarlatti, Pergolesi, and even Mozart. This is a second way in which Les Biches makes a well-planned complement to the Rite , for just four years before Poulenc composed his score, Diaghilev had commissioned Stravinsky yet again for another ballet, this one based on an 18th-century commedia dell’arte libretto for which Stravinsky composed a score based on what was believed at the time to have been the music of Pergolesi.

Poulenc may have also been influenced by another earlier Diaghilev Ballets Russes production, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé , premiered in 1912, a year before Stravinsky’s riot-provoking Rite , for Poulenc, like Ravel, adds a chorus to his orchestral score. Poulenc was more than pleased with the reception of Les Biches and was still tinkering with it as late as 1940, eventually turning it into a five-movement suite. The version presented on the current disc is the full ballet, of which there are far fewer recordings to choose from—by nearly 200, in fact—than there are of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps.

Until Fischer and his BBC Welsh players and singers came along, I’d have given the nod to Georges Prêtre’s 1980 recording with the Philharmonia and Ambrosian Singers. A more recent Chandos CD with Yan Pascal Tortelier and the Ulster Orchestra is also well done, but it’s only of the extracted five-movement suite. I would have to say that Fischer now owns this score. He manages to retain its soufflé-like character, while also bringing out its echoes of Stravinsky’s Rite.

For both the Poulenc and a refreshingly nonconformist take on the Stravinsky, not to mention a recording that doesn’t have to be a multichannel SACD to demonstrate just how still viable and stunning a standard two-channel stereo CD can be, strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins


Thierry Fischer and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales have already released recordings on the Signum Classics labels of Firebird (SIGCD165) and Petrushka (SIGCD195). I’ve not heard those discs but if they’re up to the same standard as this, the final instalment of Stravinsky’s ‘Diaghilev troika’, they will be pretty good.

The BBC NOW gives a very good account of itself in Le Sacre. The playing is precise - as is emphasised by a very good and clear recording. For example, the rhythms are crisp in ‘Dances of the Young Girls’ and ‘Dance of the Earth’ is tremendously incisive. There’s great power in ‘Spring Rounds’ while the brutal, propulsive rhythms of ‘Glorification of the Chosen One’ generate considerable excitement. The ‘Sacrificial Dance: The Chosen One’ is suitably explosive.

There’s a good deal of subtlety to admire in this performance also. The subdued and fascinating textures of the Introduction to Part II are expertly balanced by Thierry Fischer and his players and they’re just as successful in ‘Mystic Circles of the Young Girls’ which follows. This is, in fact, a successful all-round performance of Le Sacre and most certainly not one that’s merely fuelled on testosterone. The colour, bite, drama and savagery of Stravinsky’s ground-breaking score are all very well realised and so is the fantasy. It must be a huge challenge adequately to convey the sound of this complex and often tumultuous score, which requires a vast orchestra. It must be still more challenging to convey the myriad detail of the often-teeming orchestration without recourse to egregious spotlighting of individual instruments or sections. It seems to me that engineer Mike Hatch has done an excellent job in presenting a convincing and musically satisfying representation of the performance.

On the face of it Les Biches and Le Sacre are poles apart and it may seem incongruous to pair them on a CD, let alone in concert as Thierry Fischer did in June 2009, when I suspect the two works were heard in the reverse order to that on this disc. Actually, there are some common threads. The most obvious is that both ballets were composed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. In his booklet note, entitled ‘The Rites of Women’ Daniel Jaffé suggests another one, namely that “both focus on the role of women in the rituals of sex and sexual attraction.” You may or may not agree with that thesis but the beauty of a CD is that you don’t have to listen to both works in conjunction. What I can assure collectors, however, is that another common thread - and, for our purposes perhaps the most important one - is that Fischer and his musicians turn in very good performances of both works.

An important plus for this disc is that Fischer plays the full ballet score of nine movements rather than the five-movement orchestral suite that Poulenc subsequently fashioned and which is more usually heard in the concert hall and on disc. This explains the involvement of the BBC National Chorus of Wales for three of the movements feature a choir - male voices only are heard in the often lusty third section while the fifth and eighth movements call for SATB chorus. To be honest, I don’t think these choral movements are the strongest music in the ballet - turn to the more familiar numbers for that - but it’s both valuable and interesting to hear the full score and the BBC National Chorus of Wales makes a fine contribution. We are told in the notes that Poulenc set “some 17 th-century texts”. I don’t know what these were and Signum provide neither texts nor translations. My suspicion, however, is that this is one of those occasions where the text is relatively unimportant and, possibly, inconsequential.

The familiar orchestral movements contain some delicious music and the present performance is a spirited one. The sophisticated ‘Rondeau’ is done well and the infectiously gay sections of the ‘Rag-Mazurka’ are invigoratingly delivered. The ‘Andantino’ is delightful while the vivacious ‘Final’ has plenty of bounce and life. Poulenc’s score is a wonderful example of French ’chic’; it may not be the deepest thing that came from his pen but it certainly falls into the ‘naughty but nice’ category. I thoroughly enjoyed this performance.

There is applause at the end of each work - vociferous in the case of the Stravinsky - but otherwise I was not aware of any distracting audience noise.

This disc demonstrates imaginative programme planning. The BBC orchestra is on fine form under the baton of a conductor who is, seemingly, thoroughly at home in both of these very different scores. All in all, this disc is an attractive proposition.

– John Quinn, MusicWeb International Read less

Works on This Recording

Le sacre du printemps by Igor Stravinsky
Conductor:  Thierry Fischer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1911-1913 
Les biches by Francis Poulenc
Conductor:  Thierry Fischer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1923; France 

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