Shadow of Stokie Hovers in Yannick ‘Rite’ of Passage

Nézet-Séguin's first Philadelphia Orchestra CD, center, salutes Stokowski's legacy. (Deutsche Grammophon, RCA)
Nézet-Séguin’s first CD with Philadelphia Orchestra, right, salutes Stokowski’s legacy. (RCA, Deutsche Grammophon)
By Richard S. Ginell

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, “Little” Fugue in G minor, and Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and Stravinsky’s Pastorale (transcribed by Leopold Stokowski). Deutsche Grammophon CD.

DIGITAL REVIEW — Though Leopold Stokowski still casts a mighty shadow upon the Philadelphia Orchestra, the orchestra’s immensely talented music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, is not afraid. Indeed, he meets the legend head-on in his first recording with the Philadelphians, who faithfully follow their new young, charismatic leader – even employing free bowing as they manage, to some degree, to resurrect the Stokowski Sound.

Stokowski early recorded 'Rite of Spring'
Stokowski recorded ‘Rite’ in Sept. 1929.

Yannick is jumping on the Rite of Spring centennial bandwagon this year, while leaning on local tradition. Stokowski gave the U.S. premiere in 1922, made the first American studio recording in 1929, and led a horribly sliced-and-diced version for Walt Disney’s Fantasia that, alas, became his most famous one.

If anything, though, Yannick takes more of his cues from one of Stokie’s successors in Philadelphia, Riccardo Muti (Yannick’s rendition is only a few seconds off Muti’s sizzling 1979 recording).

Muti's 1979 EMI 'Rite' with Philly
Muti’s EMI ‘Rite’ came along in 1979.

While Yannick isn’t quite as violent and shattering as Muti, he whips up a wild, fast lather in Part I with sleeker power in Part II and one unusual idea – an agonizingly slow tempo for those eleven whacks of the drums before the “Glorification of the Chosen One.”

Overall, this is the best new Rite of Spring I’ve heard all year, and it’s a pity that it came along too late to be included in DG/Decca’s otherwise-comprehensive Rite of Spring anthology. There are also three of Stokowski’s wonderfully lavish J.S. Bach transcriptions. While Yannick is relatively straightforward in the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor and in the “Little” Fugue in G minor, he takes more indulgences in tempo with the Toccata and Fugue in D minor than Stokowski ever did in Philadelphia.

A lovely, plaintive Stokowski transcription of Stravinsky’s Pastorale serves as an encore and a way neatly to tie Stravinsky, Stokowski, and Yannick together.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.