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ARCHIVE: A Still Compelling Performance of Stravinsky

Originally published 6/2/13

This performance of The Rite of Spring, recorded in 1958, is still going strong at age 55. Bernstein's New York Philharmonic during the late 50's was a benchmark of virtuosic orchestral playing. This Rite, along with the celebrated 1959 recording of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony, is among the most revered recordings of all time, but has not been readily available for several years. Thankfully, Columbia Masterworks has remastered the original analog tapes and updated the recorded sound. Still, it is not without a few minor flaws. There is noticeable background noise at the beginning, and the final chord dies out very quickly, perhaps to eliminate residual room noise. You can hear violin mutes being put on in the Introduction to Part Two, and an edit nine bars into Mystic Circle of the Young Girls. Not note-perfect, there are misplaced notes by a second trumpet and a second violin in the rhythmically complicated Dance of the Earth. But these details are inconsequential compared to the compelling playing. While recording techniques have improved technologically, and the playing level of orchestras has improved technically, there is no substitute for the expression, imagination, and raw emotion as exhibited here by both orchestra and conductor.

The members of the NY Philharmonic are listed in the accompanying booklet, and a photo of the recording session is shown. The list is a virtual who's-who of great orchestral musicians. While there are too many to list here, some parts are worth noting: Concertmaster John Corigliano, Sr. plays a beautiful violin solo consisting entirely of artificial harmonics; William Lincer (my teacher) leads several well-polished and tuned divisi viola solos; Stanley Drucker is outstanding in his numerous E-flat clarinet solos; the brass players are brilliant and powerful throughout; and Saul Goodman is scary great in his all-important timpani part. The set-up for the orchestra was designed to maximize the stereo effect, with trombones and trumpets to the extreme left, and the timpani to the extreme right. Normally, these instruments would be placed close together for ensemble purposes. That poses no problem here, with the wide spacing creating a stunning sound field. If in doubt, the orchestra needed simply to follow the timpani and Saul Goodman's totally convicted and accurate playing. The collective result is simply thrilling to hear. As an example, I have rarely heard an orchestra show such an organic feeling and unity of purpose as in the Glorification of the Chosen Victim.

The piece itself, completed in 1913, is a milestone in 20th century composition, but is not without precedent. Having been given the ballet's outline by Diaghilev, the third such commission in as many years, Stravinsky quite naturally turned to other works and composers for inspiration. As a result, we can see how Stravinsky borrowed ideas from Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, written in 1894. Stravinsky opens his Rite with a likewise improvisatory woodwind solo in the same register. But, being a bassoon at the top of its range, instead of the Faun's flute in a comfortable middle register, it effectively sets the stage for the other-worldly characters and sounds that follow. As in the Debussy, the woodwinds predominate in the beginning, with the strings placed in the background for some time, sounding only pizzicatos, tremolos, and harmonics until The Augers of Spring. Even the purposefully ambiguous meters and mixed rhythms of the Debussy are recreated in the Introduction of The Rite. New concepts in orchestration and voicing are displayed in the Debussy, such as the unusual and brilliantly conceived combination of muted French horns and low-pitched first violins at the end. Stravinsky used a massive orchestra, also with unique combinations. The E-flat clarinet is in the forefront, having prominence and melodic lead over the usual B-flat clarinet. In a duo, he places an alto flute below the high clarinet, making a novel and extraordinary color combination. The bass clarinet is given a prominent role. Divisi solo violas are used extensively, instead of violins. Percussion is featured as much as the strings.

Just as Stravinsky borrowed from Debussy in The Rite of Spring (as well as from his own Firebird ballet), several later composers borrowed from Stravinsky. John Williams' music for Star Wars borrows more than a little from this score. Bernstein himself uses two chords from the Ritual of Abduction in the fight scene from West Side Story (8 measures after 47). In art, as in life, nothing comes out of a vacuum, but is rather the improving or the new combination of previous elements. This recording has served as an inspiration for subsequent recordings, having provided a concept from which to learn and emulate.

The principal players were flutist John Wummer, oboist Harold Gomberg, E-flat clarinetist Stanley Drucker, bassoonist William Polisi, French horn James Chambers, trumpet William Vacchiano, first trombone Edward Herman, Jr., and timpanist Saul Goodman, along with Concertmaster John Corigliano, Sr., principal viola William Lincer, principal cello Laszlo Varga, and principal bass Robert Brennand.

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