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Stravinsky: Le Sacre Du Printemps; Petrushka; Circus Polka; Eight Instrumental Pieces

Mehta / Los Angeles Phil Orch
Release Date: 03/12/2013 
Label:  Eloquence   Catalog #: 4805377   Spars Code: DDD 
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

STRAVINSKY Le Sacre du printemps. Petrushka (1947 version). Circus Polka. Eight Instrumental Miniatures Zubin Mehta, cond; Los Angeles PO DECCA ELOQUENCE 4805377 (77:59)

In Fanfare 36:5, James H. North and Phillip Scott surveyed the 35 orchestral performances of Le Sacre du printemps found in a new Decca 20-CD boxed set. North calls Zubin Read more Mehta’s 1969 performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic one of the set’s “disappointments,” but acknowledges that he approaches the score with “youthful fervor,” and that his orchestra plays well.

While I defer to the wisdom of North’s judgment, based on the perspective gained from listening to five decades of recordings of Le Sacre— his descriptions of favorite performances such as those by Chailly, Levine, Abbado, and Gergiev provide vicarious pleasure—I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Mehta’s 1969 recording of Le Sacre , encountering it for the first time on this Decca Eloquence reissue.

Mehta’s 1967 Petrushka shares the virtues of his Le Sacre : brilliant playing, lively tempos, and straightforward interpretation. The drawbacks are an occasional lack of convincing musical continuity that make North suspect that the recording might be a “patchwork of takes,” and an artificial quality to the miking in which solo instruments are occasionally boosted in an unnatural sounding way. This is certainly the case with the piano part in Petrushka , but I’m not so sure that I mind. In fact, I have always found Pierre Boulez’s highly praised 1991 Cleveland Orchestra versions of Le Sacre and Petrushka on DG disappointing because they often lack the sonic punch that the music needs. Their over-refinement is due in part to their realistic but diffuse sounding orchestral miking.    

Stravinsky called Mehta’s recording: “always exciting, at least, despite many errors, especially in tempi” which is higher praise than he had for versions of Le sacre by Karajan, Boulez (with the ORF Orchestra), and an obscure Russian conductor, in a 1970 article in High Fidelity . His conclusion that “none of these performances is good enough to be preserved,” was a harsh verdict, since they all had been. In a later article, Stravinsky took issue with quite a few of his own tempos in his 1960 Columbia Symphony recording.

That landmark recording, a taut, endearingly scrappy performance that provided my first hearing of Le Sacre , isn’t included in the Decca collection, but can be found in a recent 10-CD Sony box that should, but doesn’t include Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic recording, an essential performance. Fanfare ’s “serious record collectors” may well want to invest in one or both of these tempting multi-disc compilations, but for someone seeking a single disc that contains Stravinsky’s two greatest ballet scores, along with two enjoyable fillers—the Circus Polka , first performed by 50 ballerinas and 50 elephants, and the Eight Instrumental Miniatures , arrangements of the piano pieces called Les Cinq Doigts —Mehta’s performances are recommended.

Incidentally, the most vital tribute to Le sacre that I have experienced in its centenary year was in a concert by the Bad Plus, a jazz piano trio with strong classical leanings, who performs an amplified transcription of the entire score with video accompaniment. Also, lovers of Le Sacre should get a kick out of “Stride Rite,” a riotous ragtime send-up of Stravinsky’s themes by the Vermont composer David Feurzeig, published by Benario Music.

FANFARE: Paul Orgel    
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