STRAVINSKY The Rite of Spring. SIBELIUS Symphony No. 5 • Leonard Bernstein, cond; London SO • ICA 5082 (86:00) Live: Croydon, England 11/27/1966
& Leonard Bernstein discusses Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5 with Humphrey Burton
The timing of this release is most fortuitous: May 29 will beRead more the 100th birthday of Le Sacre du printemps, the most influential music ever written. To celebrate the centennial, Decca Records has just issued (December 2012) a 20-CD set containing all 38 recordings of Le Sacre made by Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, and Philips (including Doráti’s three on Mercury). One should be able to hear them all in a 22-hour session on the day.
We are occasionally told that it was not Stravinsky’s music but Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography which caused the famous riot at the premiere. To evaluate that claim, one can see a great production of a scholarly yet exciting reconstruction of the original choreography, sets, and costumes, danced by the Joffrey Ballet and played by the orchestra of the Prague National Theater. Shown on public television in 1987, it has never been released commercially, but it may be viewed on YouTube (avoid those on other sites, as many are of poor quality). A commercial DVD exists of a Mariinsky Ballet production, also with Millicent Hodson’s reconstruction of Nijinsky’s choreography. I haven’t seen it, but a YouTube version—possibly a different live performance—displays a few conventional additions to the ensemble choreography which weaken the elemental force of the Joffrey production. Nor is the dancing comparable to that by the American company, and the Prague ensemble plays as well as the Mariinsky. There have been other productions since Joffrey’s, but none that I have seen can match it. Today we seldom think of Le Sacre as a ballet; it has become merely an orchestral showpiece. It is far more than that; seeing Nijinsky’s Le Sacre is essential to a full understanding and appreciation of Stravinsky’s masterpiece, which bears the subtitle “Pictures from pagan Russia in two parts.”
These 1966 performances were recorded by BBC Television for separate broadcasts during January 1967. Leonard Bernstein was 48 at the time, and his conducting blends youthful vigor with mature control; he no longer jumps high off the podium—well, maybe once, and not very high. He took a comparatively thoughtful approach to Le Sacre, as heard on his 1958 New York Philharmonic recording. Here, in 1966, he introduces a slower than consensus tempo for “Glorification of the Chosen One” in part II. It seems a bit awkward, but in his 1972 London Symphony recording, it not only works smoothly but is dramatically most effective. As one might expect in a live concert, this performance is not as razor sharp as Bernstein’s studio versions, but it is consistently exciting. Overall tempos are just a touch faster than in either studio; the listed 36:06 includes two minutes of applause and a 45-second pause between parts I and II. (Speaking of consistency, Stravinsky’s 1940 and 1960 recordings run 31:32 and 31:34.) Brian Large’s cameras spend about half the time on the conductor, the other half in the orchestra, usually but not always on the appropriate instruments; given that this was British television’s introduction to Bernstein, that seems fair. The video is black and white and the audio is labeled “Enhanced Mono,” whatever that means. The (4:3) picture is a touch blurry by today’s standards, but the monaural sound is quite fine.
The Fifth was the Sibelius symphony most congenial to Bernstein; his New York Philharmonic recording was Richard A. Kaplan’s desert island version in his “Sibeliusaurus” (Fanfare 30:3). Bernstein, the Philharmonic, and the highly variable acoustics of Manhattan Center were all “on” on March 27, 1961. The same cannot be said here; Bernstein’s demeanor is more emotional than in the Stravinsky, which seems to dampen his communication with the orchestra. Tempos are similar to those in New York—both first movements take 13:10—but the music never coalesces. Nevertheless, the British audience—always lovers of Sibelius but rarely of Stravinsky—eats it up. Two brief discussions (eight minutes for Stravinsky, four for Sibelius) with Humphrey Burton fill out the DVD. Bernstein is slow to get going, but in a minute or two he is at his fascinating best; one wants to quote every line of his analyses. Savage-sounding chords in Le Sacre are merely a pair of common triads in different keys. A simple Russian folk melody (he plays it) becomes thrilling when doubled in parallel minor ninths. The music is “very difficult to conduct, because it needs grace as well as savagery.” Sibelius’s four minutes are less convincing; Bernstein insists the Finn is a great composer but isn’t able to explain why. In fairness, these interviews have been cut; we are given Web addresses to hear each complete. This video is recommended to those who want to see Leonard Bernstein in action, although he seems unusually cautious in Le Sacre du printemps.
If you don't know this, you will be dazzledNovember 24, 2012By Tom Henighan (Ottawa, ON)See All My Reviews"Although I am both a Stravinsky and a Bernstein fan I had never heard of this coupling, nor indeed of the 1967 BBC television series called The Symphonic Twilight from which it derives.If you know these performances already you will understand why I was stunned and near-awestruck by what I saw and heard. This disc contains, besides the two (very different) modern masterpieces, two interviews Bernstein did with Humphrey Burton, the producer and director of these concerts. (Burton later did some excellent interviews with Glenn Gould.) These are television performances in black and white and in pretty good remastered stereo. But don't worry about any of that. Sit down and be prepared to experience what will probably be the most shatteringly intense Rite of Spring you've ever heard, one with enormous power and subtlety as well. The staid-looking London Symphony plays it extraordinary well and with immense passion; at the end they stand and applaud Bernstein. The Sibelius is on the same level of intensity and precision. Oh, those "Thor's hammer" notes at the end--have they ever sounded more conclusive, definitive? Bernstein's interviews with Burton on the two works and their composers are riveting. You must have this disc!"Report Abuse