by James Chang – It’s no surprise to most people who know me that I’m a bit of a Rite of Spring junkie. For the week of the 100th anniversary of the famously riotous première, I made a point of listening to all of the recordings of the Rite of Spring I have, which is somewhere in the ballpark of 30 recordings.
“Why the heck do you have so many recordings?” you may ask, and it is indeed a very reasonable question. First a brief overview of my obsession with this piece.
For me, the Rite of Spring represents a gigantic turning point in my life. I had been a musician my whole life, but I never actually did anything much with it other than whatever my teachers and my parents told me to do. About 10 years ago, a friend introduced the Rite to me, and I fell in love with all the quirky complexities of the meter and the shifting mosaic-like blocks of rhythms, harmonies, instrumentation, and motives. The use of large orchestral forces to create a powerful composition with cascading colors piqued my interest in orchestral music. From that point on, I fell in love with and delved further into that realm, discovering giants such as Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Mahler, Ravel, Bernstein, Copland, Hindemith, Messiaen, to name a few. I became notorious to all my friends at the time as “that one guy who was obsessed with Stravinsky (whoever that is).” In a sense, the introduction of the Rite into my life was, for me, like a gateway drug to the wonderful world of the orchestra.
Interest in the Rite sparked a strong curiosity that resulted in me doing a lot of research on the piece and the premiere, obtaining the three main scores in print today (Dover 1965, Boosey & Hawkes 1967, and Kalmus 2000), compiling errata lists for all three editions for submission to a global network of orchestral librarians, listening to the piece hundreds of times, creating my own two-piano arrangement, pre-ordered the manuscript facsimile, among many other things.
This isn’t going to be a list of the top recordings of all time (only because I don’t have all of the recordings…yet), but the top recordings of my collection. These are recordings that I believe should be heard by anyone who’s a fan of this piece.
I base my judgment on:
- It’s a tricky piece, notorious for its difficulty in rhythm and notes. How well does the orchestra handle the piece’s difficulty?
- It’s a jungle of a piece. The orchestration and harmonies are super thick in some places. A well-engineered recording will be able to reproduce the full frequency range (from the highs of the crotales to the lows of the bass drum) and allow every instrument to be heard clearly and balance well.
- Balance need not only be obtained through the mixing board. The conductor has a huge role in that too. The conductor also decides the tempos and flow and many other aspects of the performance.
The list is organized in chronological order (by recording date, not release). This list got harder and harder to put together the further down I went. More and more recordings of the Rite come out every year, and they also get better and better. How does one choose? It’s hard, OK?
Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, 1958
This is the first of at least three recordings Leonard Bernstein would make of this piece. This is a relatively early recording, and to a lot of people, this is the best of the classic recordings, and for good reason. In general, this is a SUPER intense recording. You can tell all the musicians are just GUNNING it, especially in the fast movements. The brass are very meathead-y, and they just go for it the whole time they play, especially the high horns. Chops, man, chops. Horns always let ‘er rip.
Some interesting points:
- The end of the Dances of the Young Girls has these characteristic horn rips in the orchestration that the horns really let rip.
- In the large tutti of the Spring Rounds, Bernstein gives so much rubato to the colossal trombone glisses that it becomes a new beast. These are super sick glisses.
- It sounds like the engineer (and Bernstein probably) recognized the importance of the timpani because it is super present the entire time.
- In Games of the Rival Tribes, the low strings just drive the orchestra, pedal to the metal (~1:01 of that track)
- The guero in the Procession of the Sage is usually covered up in a lot of recordings, but you can hear it pretty well here, even if a bit thin.
- The Dance of the Earth rushes all the way to the end. Definitely among the most exciting Dance of the Earth recordings.
- The brass gun it but they can also play soft, like in the beginning of Part II
- 2:18 of the Ritual of the Ancestors – one of the timpanists sounds like he’s breaking a three-note chord into two hits. Very unorthodox, but it’s kinda cool
- The Sacrificial Dance is savage, and the principal horn, Jimmy Chambers, just shows off his amazing chops.
Despite all the savagery, this was not a polished performance. Not every note was correct or in tune, and the orchestra doesn’t stay together the whole time. The recording engineers also sacrificed the winds’ and some of the percussion’s clarity for brass, and there is some strange instrument placement (it’s very Left heavy, probably because that’s also where all the brass is). For 1958, though, this recording is still pretty spectacular, and it set a high bar for future recordings. Stravinsky had this to say about this particular recording:
Of musicological note: Bernstein sticks in a guero scratch on the penultimate note. This is not marked in any score except the exceedingly rare first edition score.
Also of musicological note: thanks to the awesomeness of the New York Philharmonic Digital Archives, it’s possible to view the score that was (possibly) used for this recording!
- Execution: 8/10 – not a clean performance, but the savagery and intensity make up for it
- Engineering: 7/10 – some strange recording techniques were used that were revised in following years
- Interpretation: 9/10 – Bernstein made some really ballsy calls in interpretation, but they were hugely effective
Seiji Ozawa, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1968
This recording, about a decade later than the Bernstein above, attempts to uphold the savagery of the piece. In the 10 years since the Bernstein was recorded, audio technology and recording techniques seem to have advanced quite nicely, along with orchestras’ familiarity with this piece. The Chicago Symphony’s execution of this is much cleaner and tightly-knit than the one above, and the engineering allows that to show more nicely, but Ozawa doesn’t sacrifice drive for cleanliness.
Of note is the balancing of the instruments in the orchestra. It is clear that mic and mixing techniques have advanced. This has some of the best alto flute sound on any recording. There are a couple of flubs in the musicians’ performance (2:58… what the heck, violas?) but aside from those, the execution is nearly spotless, featuring amazing performances by recently-appointed Dale Clevenger and Willard Elliot, among all the other classic CSO legends like Jacobs and Herseth. In this, you get really good brass, of course, especially the horns.
Ozawa keeps all the tempi intense, and sometimes the result is just powerful. The end of the Dance of the Earth is taken at neck-breaking speed, and the tutti of the Spring Rounds is powerful. In that tutti section, timpanist Donald Koss interestingly decides to do the grace-note pickups as triplet 16ths, which is very different, but cool. The Sacrificial Dance is intense and tightly held together, taut and fast, and the percussion, especially the timpani, go to town in the middle sections of the dance. The piece comes to an exhilarating end, as the entire ensemble speeds up more and more, but sticks together the entire time!
All of this is recorded so well. The bass frequencies are very nice and healthy and support the rest of the frequencies very nicely. You get a recording that’s basically more polished, lean, but still very mean. At times, there are still some balancing problems with the winds, but it’s still a solid recording.
- Execution: 9/10 – this orchestra has almost mastered this difficult piece, minus a couple of flubs here and there.
- Engineering: 7/10 – much better technology than before but still not well-balanced
- Interpretation: 9/10 – different from Bernstein, but still good!
Riccardo Muti, The Philadelphia Orchestra, 1978
It’s unfortunate that this recording had to have been made after Stravinsky passed in 1971. Within the last decade, recording technology seems to have made leaps and bounds in improvement. This is one of the first recordings in which the climax of the Part I introduction is decently well-balanced and clear, ushering in a new age of Rite of Spring recordings.
The bass frequencies are full and round, very nice, though the bass drum lacks a bit of definition in its transients. However, this doesn’t spoil the effect, and in fact, the famous 11/4 measure before the Glorification is pretty devastating still. Another great aspect of this recording is the guero scratches in the Procession of the Sage. You can hear it in previous recordings, but they sound pretty thin. In this one, though, it’s loud and clear, really nice.
Orchestras at this point are very familiar with this piece, and the Philadelphia Orchestra displays their mastery over this piece… except the trumpets for some reason miss a lot of notes in the first part. It’s distracting enough that I didn’t feel comfortable giving this a 9/10 in execution, but the rest of the recording is so well done, I couldn’t let it have just 8/10 either. The trumpets did get a lot better by the end of the piece, and the percussion is sometimes just nuts, so it’s still a solid execution.
As a conductor who specializes in late Romantic Italian repertoire, Muti surprises with a very good interpretation of the piece. Then one remembers that he does opera, and then it’s not really that surprising. His handling of operatic drama translates well into this, and there are moments where there is quite a lot of drive and vigor.
I was a bit hesitant to include this on this list, but it’s of significant historical interest, I think, and the performance is still spectacular.
- Execution: 8.5/10 – thanks, trumpets
- Engineering: 8/10 – new age of recordings! Lots of good mixing.
- Interpretation: 8/10 – a bit on the tame side in general (barring some really great moments), but still quite nice