All The Rites Of Spring You Can Hear

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

On May 29, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring turned 100, and never in my memory has the centennial of a piece of music been so exhaustively commemorated with performances, festivals, symposiums, and recordings – including a massive box containing every recording in Universal’s Deutsche Grammophon/Decca/Philips stockpile.   With that in mind, I’d thought I’d share with you a survey of all the recordings of the Rite that I could lay my hands on.

Stravinsky conducting 'The Rite of Spring' (Sony)
Stravinsky conducting ‘The Rite of Spring’ (Sony)

This survey was first published in 2002 as part of the Stravinsky chapter that I wrote for the book Third Ear – Essential Listening Companion: Classical Music (Backbeat Books), and I have been expanding and updating it periodically ever since. Some of these recordings are now out-of-print, some came back into print in different editions since this first appeared; check Amazon or for current availability. By no means is this a complete survey of all recordings, but there are more than enough choices to sift through.

Here it is …

How times have changed. Whereas Pierre Boulez used to recall the days when rehearsing the Rite “was like driving on ice,” nowadays not only is the piece easily navigated in lots of places,  it has become the most recorded Stravinsky work, period. Yet when the piece is played all-out, it still can be – and ought to be – a cathartic, shocking rabble-rouser, just as it was in 1913 at its wild Paris premiere.

The composer himself set a thrilling example with the New York edition of the Columbia Symphony in 1960 (CBS, Sony, also Sony SACD) – with mostly swift pacing, steady unrelenting drive, lots of revealed detail (including some wrong notes), and a raw vitality that will lift you from your chair. His 1940 waxing with the New York Philharmonic (Sony, Pearl, 2 CD) is pushed harder in sections, with more variations of tempo in Part II. Too bad the period technology couldn’t capture the full impact of this performance; it’s like a black-and-white photo viewed at a distance. The NYPO handles it superbly until the tumultuous final minute of the Danse sacrale, where things turn really clumsy. Both performances were included in a glossy mini-book pack for the centennial (Sony, 2 CD), one which contains Stravinsky’s 1961 essay in which he claims that he was merely “the vessel through which Le Sacre passed.” The rare SACD edition of the 1960 performance is slightly smoother overall and fuller in bass than the centennial remastering.

Robert Craft’s first then-highly-anticipated recording with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, made 30 years after rehearsing Stravinsky’s stereo edition, is even faster (MusicMasters, 2 CD). Yet the music nearly suffocates from a lack of oxygen in the phrasing and shortage of spring in the rhythms, although Part II is more acceptable than Part I.  Craft would go on to record two more Rites; the latest, released in 2007 as a commemoration of his friend’s 125th birthday, was made with the Philharmonia Orchestra when he was 83, or about as old as Stravinsky was at the time of his last recordings. Here, Craft has mellowed remarkably,  usually taking slightly slower tempos than the stereo Stravinsky disc, savoring hidden details in the fantastic scoring, a more humane performance in every way (Naxos).

Pierre Monteux was the imperturbable maestro in the pit during the 1913 Rite riot, so what he has to say is certainly worth hearing. He recorded the Rite four times; the third recording, a 1951 mono with the Boston Symphony (RCA) has a savage grandeur where tempos may be a bit slow at times but the cumulative effect of the crescendi is amazing. The sound is pale and opaque on the Papillon CD transfer; the Monteux Edition issue is reportedly better. Though Ernest Ansermet’s L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is sometimes not up to the job, he combines a light touch with implacable determination that keeps the momentum going (Decca, 2CD).

The Rites of Igor Markevitch, the last protege of Diaghilev, have acquired cult status for reasons that are hard to confirm. His 1951 mono Rite is well-paced, not radically different from many others except for some spotlit hidden details in Part II that add to an impression of mysterious nachtmusik.  His 1959 stereo Rite strikes me as a less interesting, brisker run-through much of the way, although the whirling close of Part I has an intensity that the mono performance lacks. Both have been reissued back-to-back on a single CD for the cultists (Testament).

The original jacket of Leonard Bernstein's charged-up 1958 recording of 'The Rite Of Spring.'
Lenny’s charged-up 1958 recording of ‘The Rite Of Spring.’

In many ways, Leonard Bernstein was the ideal conductor for the Rite, at home with all of the score’s complexities, gifted with a matchless feeling for rhythm, thoroughly in control of an orchestra and capable of a level of excitement that could blow the roof off a concert hall. His 1958 New York Philharmonic Rite from the charged-up early days of his tenure (Sony) got all of this together in one mighty wallop – with plenty of room for expression and a barbaric momentum that was positively frightening to me at one time. The remastered Rite centennial edition of Bernstein/New York (Sony) has an even clearer, more lacerating sonic edge and a commemorative booklet, but no coupling. Bernstein never could match his first Rite – not on his close-but-not-quite electrifying enough quadraphonic attempt with the London Symphony (Sony), nor his final, more deliberately paced, sonically raw-boned recording in Israel (Deutsche Grammophon). However, a recently-released 1966 BBC film of Bernstein with the LSO (ICA Classics, DVD) comes the closest to matching the energy of the New York recording; it’s actually a touch faster.  The sound is so-so mono, but you get the priceless experience of watching Bernstein urging the Brits on, with longer shots of the dynamic maestro than usual on his television films. Another Bernstein video Rite surfaced soon afterwards, a 1972 performance with the LSO at a Stravinsky memorial concert in the Royal Albert Hall (made a few days before the quadraphonic Sony recording) – this time in color – and the fires are raging there as well, though at somewhat more relaxed tempi (ICA Classics ICAD 5124).

A handful of eccentric rubatos aside, Esa-Pekka Salonen clearly buys into the composer’s approach – fleet, driving and violent – yet he applies an appealingly lighter, more linear, streamlined touch, and delivers a slam-bang coda, a cool young Finn reveling in the score’s complexities and his remarkable control of the Philharmonia Orchestra (Sony).  In 2006, Salonen had another go at the Rite with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Concert Hall – the first commercial live recording in that futuristic, Douglas fir-lined space. His cool violent conception has changed barely at all in Part I, and Part II backs off just a bit from the earlier edge, but with a big assist from the hall, everything is registered in incredibly sharp detail. The SACD layer has even tighter pinpoint detail yet curiously less resonance than the CD layer; it’s a rare case where the CD sound is preferable (Deutsche Grammophon).

Michael Tilson Thomas sees the Rite as the ultimate apotheosis of the dance; his live performances have been irresistibly rhythmic, rock `em, sock `em affairs. Alas, MTT’s rhythmically restrained, resonant-sounding recording with the Boston Symphony (Deutsche Grammophon), made when he was in his 20s, doesn’t really capture what he can do with the piece. His 1996 San Francisco Symphony performance, recorded live and packaged with The Firebird and Perséphone (RCA, 3 CD), comes a lot closer – the rhythms are more alive, the playing is superb, the Dance sacrale snarls – yet even so, one can imagine an even hotter Rite from MTT.  A third, equally well-played if a touch less volatile MTT/SFS performance, live from the Keeping Score television project, was also issued on CD (SFS Media, also DVD and Blu-ray).

Valery Gergiev’s tempos run down the middle of the road, but there’s a lot going for his Kirov (now Mariinsky) recording; spacious balances that bring new, sinister details to the fore, brasses that cut like a Russian icestorm, a violently lurching Danse sacrale. Everywhere, there’s a vivid sense of theatre that Gergiev seems to be downloading from the dozens of Russian operas that he has been reviving (Philips).

For all of the expected ferocity of Sir Georg Solti’s conducting and the fabled brawny power of the Chicago brass, their recording (Decca) also strikes me as being superbly controlled above all, with tempos exactly on target and nothing left to impulse. Riccardo Muti’s hell-for-leather 1979 Rite (EMI) was one of the best of its time and it remains a stunner, a tough, hard-driving workout in powerful analog sound that captures the Philadelphia Orchestra while it still had its own character. Muti’s successor way down the line, the immensely talented Yannick Nézet-Séguin, also came up with a honey of a fast, wild Rite in his first recording with the Philadelphia – ostensibly part of an album dedicated to Leopold Stokowski but owing more to Muti’s and Stravinsky’s own examples, with a few surprises of his own (DG).   It’s one of the best new Rites of the 21st century.

Yet the most vehement, take-no-prisoners Rite that I have ever heard belongs to Antal Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony (Mercury), a performance so furiously fast, searing and brutal that you can almost see flames coming through the speakers. The work can take it such an uncompromisingly violent approach jolly well, too, though it isn’t for everyone.  Dorati’s earlier mono LP in Minneapolis (Mercury) rips along the same lines, but not quite as furiously – it runs one-and-a-half minutes slower – the strings are acidly etched, the tympani have amazing impact for such an aged recording. Both can now be sampled in Universal’s Rite box.


Moving on to less-inflammatory approaches to the Rite, Charles Dutoit’s Montréal Symphony sounds wonderfully polished and elegant (Decca), and Dutoit keeps a taut enough hand on the rhythms and attacks to maintain some degree of virulence. The sound is Decca digital at its finest; this is a good first choice if ultra-violent Rites drive you mad.

Pierre Boulez’ first Rite with the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony) is a rigorously objective piece of work, with every detail precisely examined and projected yet curiously lacking in drive or real intensity – an analysis as opposed to a performance. Boulez went at the Rite again in Cleveland in the 1990s (Deutsche Grammophon); the sound is considerably better, even the level of playing is better, and although the interpretation is even more maddeningly sane, at least this recording has some sensual allure.

Lorin Maazel (Telarc SACD) also has the benefit of the Cleveland Orchestra, clear, spectacular early digital sound that remains in the demonstration class, and a middle-road yet satisfyingly brassy interpretation marred only by some ridiculously drawn out trombone glissandos in Part I. Believe it or not, the terrific-sounding original LP still holds its own with the SACD, as good as the latter is.

On a low-priced Basic 100 package (RCA), Seiji Ozawa secures lustrous playing and sufficient force from the Chicago Symphony in fine analog sound; no liner notes, though. The resilient, not-too-vehement Stanislaw Skrowaczewski/Minnesota Rite is a good bargain in a Vox Box loaded with top-drawer Stravinsky and Prokofiev (Vox, 3 CD). Zubin Mehta’s 1978 New York Philharmonic recording (Sony) has a certain heavyweight charisma and bludgeoning power, but some of the pacing is so sodden that this can be recommended only as a supplement. Mehta’s earlier, more invigorating Los Angeles recording can be currently found in large multi-disc boxes (Decca).

Though Claudio Abbado doesn’t really tap into the Rite’s full power, he allows some vehemence to creep into his highly refined performance with the LSO (Deutsche Grammophon, 2 CD)   Sir Eugene Goossens’s Everest session with the LSO is very slow and heavy-going, yet it now gives far greater sonic pleasure even in download form than in that label’s wretched LP pressings from the `60s (Everest).  Leading with an elongated, mannered bassoon solo, James Levine and his MET orchestra are slow and meticulous in Part I, loosening up somewhat in Part II, with plenty of smashing force and unusual detail revealed by the engineers but not enough to raise the performance above the pack (Deutsche Grammophon).

Simon Rattle and his well-recorded City of Birmingham Symphony (EMI) open tamely and often take a deceptively mild approach before surprising you with ear-opening hidden detail and huge gusts of energy and power. It’s exciting in spots but not consistent enough to weigh in with the top choices. Leading the London Philharmonic in another coupling with Perséphone (Virgin 59077, 2 CD), Kent Nagano doesn’t see the forest for the trees at times, bringing forward some fascinating, glisteningly recorded inner details at the expense of forward momentum – like Rattle, different yet spotty.

Eliahu Inbal opens slowly and indifferently but starting with the Ritual of the Two Rival Tribes, he begins to feel the piece’s heat, and Part II goes fairly well, with the details caught superbly in the Maltings acoustic (Warner Apex, 2CD). Thanks to superb multi-channel SACD engineering – which is actually at its most impressive when the music is quiet – Paavo Järvi also gets to reveal much interesting detail in Cincinnati; too bad that the amiable, heavy-set performance doesn’t really take off (Telarc SACD). Eduardo Mata, in an early digital recording with the Dallas Symphony (RCA), doesn’t try to blast the walls down; rather, he gives Part II an unusually balletic spring and lift that stays in the memory.

While Daniele Gatti’s bassoonist takes his sweet time in the opening solo bars, thereafter the Italian conductor sets conventional tempos for the Orchestre National de France, occasionally creating a froth of violence appropriate for the city (Paris) where the  riotous premiere took place. It’s a solid rendition, but not consistently driven enough to drive you crazy (Sony).

A most valuable disc is a performance by Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic (IMP Masters) which is paced according to the pianola roll that the composer supervised, with distinctly different tempos than Stravinsky’s own metronome markings (especially the pell-mell Danse sacrale). The character of the work changes amazingly, and Zander enforces the concept with gusto. The orchestra is a mixture of pros and amateurs but you’d never guess it from their assured playing – recorded live at that!   Yoel Levi and the Atlanta Symphony also take that furious closing tempo in an otherwise solid, straight-shooting, brilliantly recorded reading with hardly any other distinguishing tics or trademarks (Telarc).

Yes,  even youth orchestras are now capable of tackling the Rite, as Gustavo Dudamel and the huge Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra give their national music program El Sistema a most demanding test. (Deutsche Grammophon).  Indeed, they can play the piece, but you can’t say that they’ve completely mastered it – they’re just hanging on for dear life during the Cortege du Sage. Dudamel charges through Part I and much of Part II like a bulldozer going straight ahead; for all of his brutal energy, there is little rhythmic spring in this Rite. (he gave it a much, much better, more expressive ride when he played it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic live in 2012). The sound of the ensemble is coarse and distantly recorded. But the coupling is imaginative – Revueltas’ La Noche de Los Mayas – in the spirit of one ritual deserving another.

Now a word or two about Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, whose first recording of the Rite (Deutsche Grammophon) Stravinsky absolutely tore apart point by point in a famous article. Yes, Karajan can be inappropriately plush, but this performance has mesmerizing power; listen to the awesomely ethereal way Karajan drifts through the opening of Part II. No more eloquent dissenting opinion can be imagined.

Finally, reeling back into the past, we behold one of the great gambles of the 78 RPM era –Leopold Stokowski unleashing the Rite upon a world that still considered this to be weird, far-out stuff. The recording (Pearl, Sony) was made with the Philadelphia Orchestra over several sessions in 1929-30, a lush, glamorous-sounding thing (despite the faded sonics) where the sections of Part I seem to blend seamlessly and the opening of Part II has a breathtaking sweep the likes of which we wouldn’t hear again until Karajan. Don’t bother with Stokowski’s horribly cut and re-ordered Rite on the Fantasia soundtrack (Buena Vista, 2 CD) unless you’re curious about primitive “stereo” effects circa 1939.